As a former teacher, what saddens me is that the sides draw battle lines where there need not be any. There is a sense that we are continually facing two doors: Address poverty factors or address school factors. Support standards or support teachers. Care about academic outcomes or care about the whole child. The ad nauseam this-or-that creates a house of mirrors that leaves us all turned around.
In each and every one of these cases, the answer is to do both. Helping children grow up in a low-stress, healthy environment directly affects their perseverance, empathy and academic success. Sending those children into the hands of caring, competent teachers who have high expectations and who challenge them to pursue their aspirations also directly aids their success and life choices. Take away either, and the road becomes all too familiar: tough, littered with dropout statistics and gravestones.
Teaching should be among the most respected professions. Teachers should be paid extremely well, and they should have tremendous amounts of support, resources and quality professional development. Teachers should bring out the creative spark in children. Teachers should help students gain high levels of rigorous knowledge and skills. And teachers should be held to high standards that look at how they and their students perform on a variety of measures, year after year. These “shoulds” build on one another; they do not tear one another down.
For low-income children and parents, there are many comprehensive services that can help level the playing field, and not just academically. Housing policy is education policy. Transportation policy is education policy. Health-care policy is education policy. Criminal justice policy is education policy. Food policy is education policy. And, yes, education policy is education policy.
I do not know anyone involved in the education reform movement worth his salt who thinks that schools are the sole answer; I do not know anyone opposed to the education reform movement worth her salt who thinks schools don’t matter. Personally, I am in this work because a student of mine, Jesenia, once told me that there was one frozen pizza at her home to feed herself and six siblings. I am in this because Cody, another student, once came to me in fourth grade unable to read the sentence “The dog is big,” despite having passed reading every year.
There’s only one divide that matters: the one between those who believe all kids can succeed regardless of the circumstances of their birth and the color of their skin, and those who don’t.
There is a third way, and it is the way forward. I say shame on those who keep us anchored to an education landscape where our time, money and energy go to adults arguing with adults instead of adults uniting around the common cause of ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity to choose his or her path. There is a third way, and it is long past time we started down it.