When we talk about public education and the challenges it faces and when we talk about reform initiatives there is a question at the center of those discussions. That question is: Why do children fail? Or, “What are the characteristics of the children who perform poorly in school?” Or, more often, “Who is to blame for the failure of education in America?”
We then talk about poverty, racial discrimination and segregation, deteriorating urban and rural communities: and, we talk about bad schools and bad teachers, teachers unions, about giving people choices with charter schools and vouchers; about Common Core; about holding teachers and schools accountable and standardized competency examinations. In the last couple of decades we have begun talking about the privatization of education and other related issues having to do with taking education from the control of communities and making it more accountable much like businesses are held accountable.
What if “Why do children fail and who is to blame?” are the wrong questions? Maybe we are looking at the problems of education from the wrong perspective.
Returning to the challenges of education in America, consider a different question, for just a moment.
“Why do children succeed in school?” Or, more specifically, “what do successful students have in common and what can we learn from those common characteristics?”
We will likely discover that it is not affluence because, while there are many successful students who are affluent there are also poor children who excel academically. Conversely, there are affluent students who fail as badly as some of their economically disadvantaged classmates.
We will discover that it is not race, because the list of the academically excellent includes white children, and black children, and children with skins that span all of the hues and colors in between.
We will learn that it is not fractured families because there are children who excel in school who live in single-parent homes or with families that are otherwise distressed just as there are children from intact families who fail, miserably.
We will learn that it is not bad neighborhoods because there are children from the most dreadful surroundings who somehow perform well in school just as there are children at the other end of the performance continuum who live in the best neighborhoods in America.
We will also discover that it is not bad schools populated by bad teachers, because students from both ends of the performance continuum can be found in our best and in our worst performing schools.
The one single characteristic that most links our best students, wherever we find them, is that they are supported by parent(s) or guardian(s) who are determined that their children will get the best possible education and who consider themselves to be partners, sharing responsibility with teachers and principals for the education of their children.
Now, flip the question around and ask, what are the common characteristics of children who are failing in school? If we are honest with ourselves we will discover that the single most common characteristic of children who struggle academically is that they are not supported by parents who are determined that their children will receive a good education. Many parents of struggling children might vocalize that education is important but they do none of things that determined parents do. They do not talk constantly about the importance of education. They do not make certain that their child has resources that will help them be successful in school. They do not ask, routinely, “How was school today?” nor do they ask to see homework or tests and other papers sent home by their child’s teacher. They do not call and talk to their child’s teacher to see how their son or daughter is doing or to ask what they can do to help and support the child? They do not go to parent/teacher conferences or back-to-school night. Whatever they might be vocalizing their actions provide no evidence that a real commitment exists or that the parent recognizes and accepts responsibility as a partner in the educational process.
Think for a moment, about how the answers to this new set of questions changes, profoundly, everything we think we know about the educational process.
The problem with education in America is that we have a burgeoning population of American mothers and fathers who live under a stifling blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness. These men and women are effectively disenfranchised and no longer believe in the American Dream for themselves or for their children. As a result, they do not stress the importance of education to their children and they make little if any effort to prepare their children for learning; they offer no support to the educators of their children and, in fact, view their children’s teachers and principals as adversaries. Many of these parents have lost control over their children and can no longer claim status as the guiding influence in the daily lives of their sons and daughters.
Because the quality of the education our children receive will determine whether or not the U.S. can maintain any semblance of a competitive advantage as we proceed through the balance of the Twenty-first Century, we are facing two challenges:
1. The first is that we must utilize every resource at our disposal to pull parents into the process as fully participating partners in the education of their sons and daughters. It is the absence of this partnership that results in the lowest level of motivation to learn on the part American children in generations and this is a reality that must be altered at all cost.
2. The second is that we must be willing to admit that our current educational process is poorly structured to get the results we so desperately need to achieve. It is a system that sets the overwhelming majority of students up for failure and humiliation simply because it starts all children out on the same academic path, regardless of the cavernous disparity in the preparation they bring to their first day of school, and it judges their performance against that of their classmates. We must create a reality in which children are given sufficient time to master their subjects before they are permitted to move on because we have no illusions that they all will have achieved the same things by the end of twelve years of formal education. We do not need them to achieve the same things. What we need is that they will have learned as much as they are able to learn and that they will be able to apply what they have learned when they enter the next stage of their lives, whatever that may be.
The first challenge is formidable because it demands that we strive to change the culture of American society to one in which the American dream is real and achievable, if not for every man and woman in the nation, at least for their children. It will require that we quit bickering and, instead, come together to achieve a common objective.
The second challenge offers no excuses for failure because the educational leaders in each of our fifty states has the authority to change, by decree, the educational process in their state.
If we continue down the same path, we place our entire future as a society in jeopardy.