The Kids Behind Race to the Top

05/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2011

Congratulations Colorado! It was announced today that we are finalists for the $4.35 billion dollar Race to the Top competitive education grant. Beyond the fights over CSAP scores, and fair teacher placement practices, it's important to remind ourselves why education reform is so important.

I'll never forget my third day of teaching. It was the start of second period, and I knelt down next to a student's desk to help her with a problem clearly causing her straine. But before I could offer assistance she hit me with a profanity laced "get out of my face!" I was stunned, and had no idea how to react. Thoughts flew threw my head as I tried desperately to calculate my next move. Do I call security? Do I write her a behavior referral? If I do nothing will the other students think it's ok to curse at me in the future?

But more than anything I wondered -- and continue to wonder -- how did we get here? How did "get out of my face" become her default response to an offer of assistance? How can she possibly despise teachers so much -- how did we get here?

It's a question I wonder with a lot of my students. How is Emanuel, a 19-year-old senior, still reading on a 5th grade level? How can Crystal, a now two-time freshman lack the concepts of area and volume? And how can Tisha abhor teachers so much that her instinctual response to offers of help is a profane backlash? What sort of educational trauma have these kids faced -- how did we get here?

Of course the easy answer is that these kids -- my students -- are products of their environment. That living off food stamps, being on Medicaid, or struggling with a complicated past unquestionably explains a student's academic shortcomings.

But it's these easy answers that created an educational system clouded in mediocrity. A system where my students have historically been held to lower standards, instead of being challenged to the same levels as their peers in neighboring districts. We've spent decades rationalizing underperforming students and schools instead of finding real solutions to our systemic shortcomings. It was these excuses that got us here, that created underperforming schools, unhappy teachers, and a cultural acceptance of failure.

That's why education legislation in Colorado is so exciting. Our leaders have collectively rejected the excuses that were once commonplace, and have replaced them with ideas that support and challenge educators who will in turn support and challenge their students.

I had a great chat with one of my students, Claudia, after school on Friday. She's fifteen, in my first period geometry class and expecting her first child any day now. Claudia has given me a lot of attitude over the last two months. She has told me more than once not to help her while offering the all too familiar refrain "get out of my face." But slowly we have started to make a connection. Most recently Claudia has shared stories of the ultrasound where she learned her baby was a girl and how her mother "blabbed to everybody" even though Claudia told her to "keep her mouth shut."

I have refused to explain away Claudia's outbursts using the easy answers, and because of my persistence I think she's starting to like me. She let me help her solve an area problem the other day, and she even called my cell phone one morning to say she was going to be late to class. I know it sounds minuscule, but I think Claudia is starting to see me, her teacher, in a different light, a more positive light, a light that will inevitably help her grow as a student, a citizen and a mother.

I like to set goals for myself, and my students -- even if they can't be perfectly measured. I have a new goal, a qualitative goal, and it has nothing to do with CSAP growth, or academic objective mastery, but it has everything to do with the progress Colorado is making because of Race to the Top. My goal is that Claudia's daughter's teachers will never wonder: "how did we get here?"