09/20/2012 11:28 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

School Reform and the Lives of Girls

"Education is the civil rights issue of our time." Who can quarrel with such a statement, often proclaimed by school reform advocates from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney to Michelle Rhee and Al Sharpton.

But where would the school reformers be if we rephrased that thought:

Civil rights is also the real educational issue of our time.

Cognoscenti in the school reform movement scoff at any suggestion that poverty, hunger, neglect and abuse, parental illiteracy and the abysmal condition of families in some neighborhoods might have something to do with educational failure. Some school reformers even go so far as to call people "racist" who point to the catastrophic conditions of life that too many children face each day. In the war on teachers, no weapon is too harsh to use against people who might have other perspectives, such as the ways in which too many children suffer the chronic denial of basic civil and human rights --- safety and security, food and shelter, something resembling a functional parent. (Alex Kotlowitz had a thoughtful essay reflecting on the Chicago teachers' strike and the impact of poverty in schools in Sunday's New York Times, "Are We Asking Too Much From Our Teachers?")

Perhaps the reformers should spend less time in conferences extolling each other's virtues and more time out with the children, themselves, listening to the stories of their lives. Educating politicians, pundits and school reformers about the deprivation of basic rights that our children continue to suffer must be part of the education reform movement.

Each year I read the admissions essays of our new students entering Trinity College, the historic women's college at the heart of our university. These students are mostly 18-20 years old, young women from D.C. and nearby suburbs for the most part. About 80 percent are eligible for Pell Grants; most are graduates of the D.C. or Prince Georges public or charter schools. About 90 percent are African-American or Latina, with many coming from immigrant families. I can tell they write their own essays because the grammar is inelegant; the syntax needs work. But they write with passion and, quite often, deep anger about the conditions they have had to bear in their very young lives.

My students write starkly of parents murdered in front of their eyes, sometimes by another parent; of drug-addled fathers and alcoholic mothers; of brothers gunned down on the streets of D.C. and terrible nights spent cowering in fear of beatings or worse abuse at home; of homelessness and hunger as constant companions.

These are the girls who have made it. These are the young women who actually managed to finish high school and enroll at a good private college (Trinity works hard to stay affordable for low income students). They have big dreams, and they almost universally write about wanting to change their lives. Many -- about 10-15 percent of the class -- already have children of their own, sometimes several, babies who arrived during their high school years. These teen moms, now college students, write about how motherhood has made them more responsible, helping them to focus on getting a college degree to provide a better life for their children.

At a time when some very wealthy, elite people seem to take pleasure in questioning the value of college, my students are laser-focused on "walking across the stage" on that bright day in the future that motivates every day in-between. They hunger for knowledge; they thirst for the personal, intellectual and even spiritual transformation that is the real result of a great college education.

But what about jobs? Isn't that the point of going to college? Well, no. Personal transformation is the real purpose, pursing a career path is part of that transformative process. But in fact, most of these young women are already in the workforce, teenagers who are old souls working far into the night to support their families (yes, supporting siblings and parents) even while trying to master calculus and Polonius. As their education advances, their employment opportunities also grow more sophisticated. The irony of the current national conversation about higher education -- as with school reform in K-12 -- is that it does not consider the lived experience of students who are already working and moving up in the workforce as they progress through degree levels.

My students write with a great deal of passion about wanting to be good role models for their siblings and children, about not wanting to be "another statistic" of failure and despair, about wanting to set a new course for their families. They instinctively know what a great college education will do for them -- and they have to conquer unimaginable personal and social obstacles to reach graduation day.

American education is like a great baronial feast. Wealthy elites sit at the head of the table slicing great, juicy pieces of the American pie for their children whom they tend to with great care, from preschool through law school, usually in private institutions or elite public schools. Middle class parents eagerly push their kids to the center of the table among the vast suburban public schools, anxious to get their fair share of the plentiful goodies that will nourish their families through many succeeding generations.

And somewhere along the edges of the room, fading into the gathering darkness, are vast numbers of children who can only stand and watch in hunger and fear; their parents did not bring them to this feast. Perhaps their parents could not read the invitation; or perhaps they could not comprehend the opportunity. Or perhaps these parents told their offspring that such education wasn't for them, that their future could not be better than the parent's own; that this girl child should know she will amount to nothing. Or perhaps the parents simply were not present to the lives of these children who are, for all useful purposes, abandoned.

Mythology? Sadly, no. The stories are all too true for children in our urban public schools.

A recent report from Venture Philanthropy Partners "Capital Kids" is the latest evidence of what we already know: An unacceptable proportion of children in our nation's capital live in poverty -- 30.4 percent, a rate higher than Mexico -- and 51 percent live in low income households. Conditions of abysmal poverty among children living not far from Capitol Hill have direct links to lower academic achievement and diminished opportunities.

The current presidential campaign is likely to cost about $1 billion, mostly spent on advertising for two powerful men to bash each other. We won't hear either presidential candidate spend a nanosecond of air time talking about his plan to attack poverty as a top leadership priority. Imagine what that $1 billion could do for impoverished children living in the shadow of power in D.C.

Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund has written and spoken eloquently about the critical condition of children living in poverty. Diane Ravitch has also been a passionate voice for the urgency of addressing poverty as part of the education reform movement. But aside from such courageous voices, for the most part school reformers, presidential candidates, the verbose commentariat -- all turn deaf ears and blind eyes to the poor and the powerless, especially the young girls in abandoned places who have no votes, no voices, no means of grabbing their own slices of the American pie save for their own grit and determination, like characters in The Hunger Games. Getting to college can be just that ruthless for the kids on the margins. Yes, my students are among those who have made it, so far. But millions more remain left behind in some of the most impoverished places in our nation.

The education of girls and women often receives global recognition as one of the best solutions to poverty and the need for economic development. Unfortunately, in the United States, the success of elite women has dampened enthusiasm for ongoing advocacy for the girls and women whose opportunities remain profoundly unequal and decidedly bleak. A nation that allows millions of girls and women to remain living in abysmal conditions of poverty will never solve its quest for educational improvement.

School reform will not succeed in the absence of a comprehensive agenda to address the conditions of poverty, homelessness, parental illiteracy, drug abuse, hunger and violence that leave children abandoned and debilitated on the margins of this society. That's not "an excuse" as some school reform mavens might say; it's a fact, a damn fact, a shameful fact that is a blight on our nation.

Education is certainly a civil right; but children cannot enjoy that right unless and until they also have a just measure of the fundamental human rights to live without fear; to have food and shelter and essential health care (and yes, Mr. Romney, children really are entitled "to health care, to food, to housing..."); to experience life with responsible, productive adults who, themselves, have the basic skills and dispositions necessary to raise children successfully. True reformers will embrace the totality of those issues, not just targeting teachers to the exclusion of all other conditions.