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Meredith Ely Headshot

Schools -- The Ultimate Agents of Social Change

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People get seriously defensive -- with good reason -- at blanket statements about teaching and curriculum standards, accountability in schools, and teacher union authority. When discussing reform, subtle nuances get lost in politicized rhetoric and very personal experiences. Reform is framed almost as a holy war against a lethargic, failing school system, and as a result we see an insurgency among educators who are working to the bone and given minimal resources.

We do not have a failing school system. We have a system that fails poor children. I am sure every district, wealthy or not, has a set of very legitimate obstacles, but in terms of reform, this is not about a flawed school system generally. Reform must be about the achievement gap.

The statistics on educational disparities between low-income and affluent children is horrifying. According to NCES, across racial lines and accounting for risk factors, children at 9 months old tend to demonstrate similar cognitive and verbal abilities. By age 3, we can already see distinctive differences in vocabulary and cognition between affluent children and those from low-income communities. The gap continues to widen over time. Columbia University's Teachers College notes, "By the end of fourth grade, African-American, Latino, and poor students of all races are two years behind their wealthier, predominantly white peers in reading and math." If these students make it through 12th grade, they are on average four years behind their wealthy counterparts. This divide has implications not only for the children involved, but also for the society at large who desires a well-educated and cultured citizenship.

Of course, embedded in the achievement gap are the nation's most tragic systemic problems -- poverty, homelessness, and institutionalized racism -- and their social iterations of drug use, crime, premature birth, lead poisoning, single parenthood, abuse etc. The relationships among these issues are worthy of the abundant literature surrounding them, but in this brief article, I dare not try to discuss them all. What I mean by introducing these huge problems is to focus on the intersection and possible solution of them all -- education. Though not a magic bullet, public education is the best place to address our nation's deeply seated social justice issues because in theory, every child gains access to social and academic resources beginning at age 5 through his or her school.

Schools cannot counter every risk factor at home, but because our education system is supposed to be democratic, free, and equal, it is the one place that we have opportunities to extend support to every child and each of their families. Our political culture recognizes the importance of integrated, well-rounded classrooms. From Brown vs. Board of Education I and II to Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education to state funding laws like California's Serrano vs. Priest, our body of legislation around desegregation and equal opportunity is substantial. Furthermore, amidst contention about a widespread welfare state, publicly funded education has developed as more of a bipartisan American ideal than other large-scale social efforts. Nonetheless, in practice we see the jarring truth of a system that sends affluent kids to college and says that we have done all we can for the rest.

The potential within schools to affect social change is magnificent. Dedicated, proactive teachers have a powerful role in guiding a student's academic trajectory, but too often we hear about a hardworking teacher who cannot reach a student because his or her family is "failing" at home. The pervasive systemic realities seem to counter any progress a teacher can make in low-income schools. I recently discussed my teaching experience in a post, "Can we nurture the 'whole' child?" Governed by Head Start standards, my school emphasized total family involvement and a holistic approach to education. I invested the greater part of myself and partnered with our support staff to form relationships with every parent, helping them with housing, transportation, finding jobs, acquiring food, and understanding child development. I knew this would intimately shape my students' ability to learn. Naïve though it may sound, my own experience informs my conclusion that schools can and should help families become advocates for their children, not blame them for their shortcomings.

Head Start is deemed "early intervention," but why should we not sustain efforts to work with families into K-12 schools? Segmenting education as an exclusive entity, meant only to deal with academics makes us lose sight of the possibilities to teach and support families. I do not mean this in a patronizing sense, that teachers should tell parents what to do, but educators are experts on child development, behavior management, and instruction. Every school has an opportunity to share this knowledge with the families that it serves. Some may think this is above and beyond the means of schools, but when we contextualize education, and realize that it is the only avenue through which we can reach every family at the ground level, it becomes almost an obligation.

We must continue to frame reform as an urgent press to help the nation's least privileged children. Though the achievement gap encompasses our nation's most complex political concerns, schools are uniquely situated to support families, not just children. Perhaps this perspective gets too close to socialized services for some to stomach. In my mind, the benefits of an educated and diverse society are too great to ignore.