You can’t have a conversation about education reform without the words “achievement gap” coming in at some point, along with specific plans on how to close it. But are policymakers attempting to close it in an effective way? James Boutin, a veteran high school teacher just south of Seattle, Washington, answers in the following post. He is a national board certified language arts and social studies teacher at the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment in Seatac, and has previously taught in New York City, Washington D.C., and Knoxville, Tennessee. He blogs at An Urban Teacher’s Education.

By James Boutin

When I started teaching, I had a radically different understanding of public schools and their purpose than I do today. Back then, I believed that great public schools could be the great societal equalizer for otherwise disenfranchised people in our society. (I say much more about that in this post.) That view has changed.  I no longer believe schools alone can serve that purpose.

Let me tell you about a student I once taught. (Here, we’ll call him Guillermo.) Guillermo had long, dark hair that usually covered his face. He was tall and lanky and normally wore black pants and a black jacket to school. When he spoke with you (or, more often, sat while you spoke to him), he would keep his head down. I can’t remember a time that we made eye contact. After a long day at school, he would arrive late to the last period of the day with various colors all over the skin of his arms and hands. His friends had used markers to write their phone numbers, pictures, or messages on him.

Many days, Guillermo slept through class. Although he rarely spoke back to me when I asked him about his life, I had the distinct impression that he wanted to do well in school. To be fair, I believe every student wants to do well in school. But there was something unique about Guillermo’s behavior that made me think that about him. He was in school virtually every day. I caught him, on multiple occasions, asking other students what he was supposed to be doing when he didn’t think I was looking. He always brought a pencil. And even though he never turned in work, I saw him occasionally writing during work time.

A few years after I had him in class, I learned from our school counselor that the reason he slept in class so often was that his mom had relocated their family about 25 miles from our school. She wanted them to have an uninterrupted education, however, so she had them take public transportation from the temporary housing she’d found to our school, requiring Guillermo to wake up at 4 a.m. to catch the bus. After school, he would hang out with  friends in the courtyard until the bus home arrived (around 5 p.m.). He would get home around 7:30 p.m., help out with chores, and fall asleep around 11 p.m. or 12 a.m.

Getting to and from school was not the only challenge Guillermo faced, though. His father abandoned his mother and siblings when he was 4 years old after some years of verbal and physical abuse, and his mom could not get a regular housing situation on her own. Although I didn’t learn about these facts until after he’d left my classroom, it made a lot of sense. Guillermo was a student who had suffered the loss and abuse of his father, and the financial instability of his mother. On top of that, he struggled with the same challenges that teenagers who don’t face such tremendous trauma deal with on a daily basis: hormonal changes, fitting in at school, and finding an identity.

I’m telling you about Guillermo because it’s so very important that people who don’t work in high-needs schools understand the lives of the people who attend them. Of course, nobody else had Guillermo’s unique situation; but most students living in material poverty experience a high degree of what one might call emotional poverty as well. It’s not just about not having money for food and housing; it’s often about not feeling the love, support, and stability needed for social-emotional health. The challenges students face range vastly. There are students who live with two parents who are both unable to work due to disability; students who never knew their parents and grew up in the foster system; students who fight their parents’ drug addiction; and students who have been routinely abused since the time they were born. In many communities, trauma stemming from abuse and neglect are a way of life.

This reality, when fully grasped, suggests strongly that the primary purpose for school, particularly for tremendously disadvantaged students, should not be preparing them to compete in the marketplace, as I often feel our society believes it to be. Furthermore, the policies advanced in our country that are designed to make students competitive job seekers often do far more harm than good for students like Guillermo.

In one famous study from the 1980s, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that children of professionals amassed a vocabulary that included 30 million more words than did children raised in poverty by the age of 3! When you enter kindergarten at such a profound deficit in the skills and knowledge public schools assess young people for, it can be both difficult and debilitating to find that your teachers, and perhaps some of your peers, consistently judge you to be a failure. Considering the reality of what’s going on outside school for many students, the wonder is that so many students persist in school for as long as they do.

There may be ways in school to make up for some of the deficits of skills and knowledge our culture believes to be important to competition in the marketplace. What I finally realized, in my ninth year, is that I do not support  current attempts  to “narrow the achievement gap” in school alone. Why? What we mostly mean when we talk about narrowing the achievement gap is finding ways to get students of color to score as well on standardized tests as white students do. As Hart and Risley’s work suggests, skills and knowledge essential to performing well on standardized tests (like vocabulary) are not easily gained, particularly when a student’s social-emotional issues (and perhaps hunger or lack of safety) stop them from focusing in school.

Does public education have a history of doing disservice to poor children of color in our country? Absolutely! Is it because they haven’t closed the achievement gap? Ironically, I would say schools continue to disservice students because they’re so hellbent on closing the achievement gap of standardized test scores.

Schools leaders who focus on closing the achievement gap often do things such as reduce or eliminate art, music, social studies, recess; and, instead, spend lots of time analyzing student performance on math, reading, and writing tests in an effort to improve those skills. These skills are certainly vital, but this kind of schooling comes with grave costs.

It’s time education policymakers seriously acknowledge that we live in a tremendously unequal and unjust society that creates the problems we see in schools before students ever even arrive there. Students need to feel safe, to feel loved, to eat, to sleep, and to have friends before they can engage in learning. When students don’t feel safe or loved or are hungry, they don’t learn very well, if at all. The students who often don’t have their social-emotional needs met in and out of school are the same students who are on the bottom end of the achievement gap; force feeding them a simple diet of only math and language down their throat becomes  inhumane.

Visiting the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco last month, I was delighted to hear one of the staff members say, “I’d rather have a student come to us, drop out their sophomore year, and go on to be a good person than graduate with a 4.0” and be a difficult person who doesn’t know how to deal with other people.

Students who have to spend the vast majority of their day doing reading, writing, and math instruction geared toward helping them pass tests lose valuable opportunities to practice other skills and learn things critical to being human and participating in American civil society. Why don’t we spend more time teaching students about interpersonal communication or nutrition or personal finance in public schools? Why do we still cling to a curriculum that is outdated and thin? Are we supporting the public education system simply to ensure that students can participate in the American economy?

Making a mountain of money isn’t a universal value. When I asked a handful of my students last month if they were considering going to a four-year university when they graduate in June, all of them looked at me like I was crazy. “Why not?” I asked. “It’d be a phenomenal opportunity.”

“Yeah. Probably. But my family comes first, and they need me here, with them right now,” one of them said.

It reminded me that I come from a family and culture that puts great import on individual success. Different people and cultures will define success differently, and our public schools must be a place that accommodate those differences, particularly regarding how we talk to students about their post-secondary life and aspirations.

So what should the purpose of schools be for students like Guillermo and the family he belongs to?

In low-income communities, schools should serve as centers for civic dialogue, healing, and humanity. Of course teaching math and language is vital, but that isn’t the only vital thing — and  they shouldn’t be the only skills that determine whether you receive a high school diploma. Rather, schools should spend much more time serving students by identifying their strengths and helping to expand them, identifying their weaknesses and helping to overcome them, and then using  the buy-in that’s created by that work to motivate them when they work in academic areas in which they’re less able.

It is imperative that the adults who work in schools — and who create policy for them —  are guided not by a desire to mold children into the model employee, but rather by love for the child. Children should feel loved in school.  When that thought become prominent in my head, I realized I’d become a radical of sorts. Undoubtedly many conventionally minded people who  read this might think that I have become “soft,” and  that school is naturally the place where preparation for the marketplace should be front and center, with individual competition in pursuit of monetary success being the American way.

I can only respond by noting that Guillermo desperately needed a school that understood and accommodated for his unique needs. His six-period day packed with notes and homework and math tests did not do that. And we never reached him. He dropped out when he turned 16.