02/26/2013 11:42 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

We Are Failing Our Students -- They Are Not Failing Us

When teachers speak out about the inequities of today's educational system, many are afraid (myself included) that they will be perceived as excuse makers not willing to look at their own practice as a component of their students' failure.

Numbers don't lie, say the experts. "A school in which X percent of the students do not achieve proficiency on a state exam is failing! The teachers must be bad! The parents are negligent." Yet, the people making such sweeping generalizations are not the ones trying to implement ground-up change in our inequitable society day in, day out.

Folks seeking to turn around these failing schools often perpetuate the problem by seeking to simply shift the managerial duties of a school into a private organization with the hope that the organization will fix all that ails the school. And despite the fact that many of these schools often implement confusing admissions policies, enforce class size caps, and expel students who demonstrate persistent behavioral challenges, society often looks to those schools as models of success.

Addressing the issue of failing schools by turning them around, firing their teachers, and dismantling their unions is a flawed practice that neglects to truly serve our children.

The way to truly implement change is to do something very uncomfortable: address the inequities at work in America. Only when we can see beyond the identification of poor children as "those kids" and beyond their education as some kind of charitable undertaking, but rather as a human rights issue, will we actually be able to implement true transformation.

Do I think that all of my students are capable of learning at high levels? Absolutely. Will those high levels of learning always manifest themselves as "Proficient" on the state tests? Certainly not. Consider a child who has been in the United States for 366 days and still is at an emerging level in their acquisition of English. That child takes the state exam -- in English. He or she is required to read and analyze grade-level text in a language they have not yet mastered; and those scores count towards grading the teacher and the school. Of course, the most important impact is not how those scores affect the school's rating, but rather how those failing scores affect that child's confidence, and their belief in their ability to succeed in the education system.

We can continue to blame the teachers, the parents, even the neighborhoods, but until we actually begin to look at the deep flaws of how we treat our children, we will continue to spin our wheels.

I have been reading The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, in which Jonathan Kozol frequently mentions that

"...shockingly large numbers of well-educated and sophisticated people [that] have been able to dismiss such challenges with a surprising ease. 'Is the answer really to throw money into these dysfunctional and failing schools?' I'm often asked" (2005, Kindle edition).

It is easy to classify these schools as beyond repair, the students as beyond damaged, and their parents as inferior to those in a middle class neighborhood. As Kozol mentions, it's easy to ignore that

"all the fullness of [the students'] complicated and diverse and tenderly emerging personalities.... Keeping them at a distance makes it easier." (The Shame of the Nation, 2005, Kindle edition).

I would invite those who are dismissive of the potential of my students and others living in poverty, to come observe my class, to come meet "these kids" and see their abilities and needs first hand.

Band-aid solutions will not make a long-term difference. Turning around a school here and there does not make systematic and long-term change. Investing in universal quality Pre-K, as President Obama and most of the education world have insisted, is essential. Setting our students up for success, however, will take not only universal Pre-K. It will take changing the unfair testing requirements for our English Language Learners. It will take meaningful truancy support for our students who are missing far too much school. It will take early identification of and intensive intervention for our struggling learners.

True "reform" will take more than a "good" parent. More than a "good" teacher. More than a "good" school. Kozol and educators around the nation refer to the deep-seeded inhumane conditions in which we educate our impoverished youth. Yet those inequities remain.

I believe that we are, as a society, capable of systematic change. Systematic change cannot, however, be mistaken for our current definition of educational reform, which is often a superficial system in which failing schools are "fixed". Instead, we have to open ourselves up to that distressing conversation about inequity. We have to acknowledge that the students we have so long referred to as these kids are, in fact, our kids. And our kids deserve every opportunity in the world.