06/06/2012 04:53 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2012

The 'Urban' Divide

I hate the phrase "urban education." What we are really talking about is how to teach children without money. Without opportunity. Kids with problems. And it's all anyone is talking about nowadays. The central question is this:

How do we help kids be successful in school when they have a disadvantaged home life?

Let's focus on one real student with a fake name. Miguel. Miguel, who I taught in a low-performing school district in Massachusetts, failed my senior English class. Miguel is not a "problem" student -- he made me laugh, he made everyone smile, and he made himself into a generally amazing, amazing human being. But he didn't do assignments; he did not complete schoolwork despite being intellectually capable.

Miguel, despite a tremendous, gregarious, hilarious personality that endears him to everyone, is completely, utterly abused at home. Torn apart, verbally and physically. Miguel is like many students in low-income homes, homes where the stress of getting by, of being unemployed or underemployed or undereducated, damages everyone's health. And it's important to note that these struggling students are not only found in high-poverty areas -- they are in our suburbs, in our richest gated communities. But they are more visible, and more common, in our urban areas.

Miguel reacts to his awful home life by being a people pleaser. Other students become "problems" -- students who externalize their anger, their sense of injustice and their wordless frustration. Students who fight, who storm out of class, who swear at teachers. These students do not have the emotional intelligence to realize that their parents' problems are not their own, especially when they are still trapped under their roof. These "problem" students spend day-after-day locked up in in-school or out-of-school suspension for one petty infraction or another.

So let's look at Miguel now, one year later after he took my class. He has gone through senior English a second time and failed yet again.

How are we supposed to help Miguel?

What did I do wrong?

Reformers often talk about changing a system. Rather than focusing on the administrative aspect, we should be focusing on Miguel. We will never, never attract and keep the right people in our low-performing districts without focusing on how much we are actually helping students. We need more student narratives.

It's great that reformers are shifting education from a soft science of social theories to a hard science based on data. But data-based decision-making alone isn't going to cut it. Children are not numbers. And nobody goes into teaching because they passionately love aggregating and analyzing multiple-choice question responses.

I am constantly struck by how little time education reformers spend talking about students, and how much time they spend talking about adults. Ourselves.

Having now worked in both urban and suburban communities, I can tell you that the issues are quite similar -- it's family income that's making the difference. There are plenty of underperforming teachers in the 'burbs, but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter as much. Middle-to-upper-income families can pay for private tutors and can advocate for better schedules. But it's a monumental challenge to get your child out of a bad class when you don't even know the language.

So what will work?

  1. Set teachers free. Cut administrative staff in half, and then cut them again. Increase the number of teachers and guidance counselors. It's nonsensical that as you move outside of the classroom, you make more money doing less important work.
  2. Let us work together, collaboratively, not as "islands of excellence."
  3. Create a real, concrete ladder for us to advance. It's no wonder that teachers get bitter when they know that nothing they do well will affect their pay, and the only way "up" is out of the classroom.

Even as I'm writing this, I notice the shift. I'm talking about what teachers want. Adults. It's always about us.

But what does Miguel need?

Let's take another student, Felix. Same terrible home life as Miguel, similar personality, but Felix is now at a small liberal arts college on a scholarship.

Why does Felix get to go to college and Miguel doesn't?

The answer is luck. Chance. Circumstance. The right teacher, the right opportunity, the right after-school program that Felix got into and Miguel didn't. But as long as we have Felix, we can delude ourselves into thinking that the American dream requires merely hard work.

Miguel needs teachers who love their jobs, who serve as pillars in our struggling communities. Who know when to smile, when to laugh and when to scold. Who can teach him the emotional skills that his parents have not.

And yes, Miguel does need to learn to read and write at a college level, but he needs to deal with his baggage first. He needs to know why he is writing this research paper, why he has to learn Shakespeare. He can't blindly accept that when so many of the adults in his life have proved untrustworthy.

But he's already failed twice after getting passed along through the machine. He's dropping out to get his GED.

But will he? And who will follow-up?

Statistically, he'll become a drop of water in our swelling sea, our American underclass created through our collective failure.