A recent ad campaign we launched at Students First to raise awareness around the weak academic performance of U.S. students compared to their global peers drew all kinds of reactions. Many people were shocked to learn we’re among the worst performing nations in the world in math and said they wanted to help bring about change. But some said our lagging scores weren’t all that surprising, or even terribly disappointing, given high poverty levels in America. I find that response so troubling. Poverty presents huge challenges in our schools. But expectations of academic success for a child should never hinge on the circumstances of his or her birth. Our schools can’t fix all of society’s problems, but what happens in classrooms everyday can make a huge difference in the life outcomes of all children. As such, our schools can and should be held accountable for ensuring all students are learning.
As a former teacher in an impoverished Baltimore neighborhood and the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools, where about 70 percent of kids are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, I’ve seen firsthand the effects of poverty. It’s not easy to complete your homework if your electricity has been cut off, you don’t have a safe place to stay, you’re hungry, or your eyes are drooping because there isn’t an adult around most evenings to ensure you get adequate sleep. These are challenges most of us have never had to deal with, and there is no doubt principals and teachers in communities struck by poverty have much more difficult jobs than those who educate wealthier children. These educators absolutely need our support and deserve our respect and appreciation for the uphill climb they have chosen to take daily.
These challenges speak to the significant need for economic reform and for social programs and policies that better address economic gaps and inequities. We must do much more as a society, broadly, to address poverty. In my experience, schools can and must be an important part of that by providing educational opportunities to low-income kids that can help break cycles of generational poverty. America is far behind other developed countries in social mobility, meaning if you’re a child born into poverty here, it’s far more difficult to move out of poverty later on than in other countries. It’s a terrible problem that goes against our ideals as a nation and which we have to solve.
Our schools and educators can play a key role, but they must be supported. In other words, we have to make sure poor children are getting some of their basic needs met at school, so they can focus on learning during class time. When I was in D.C., we made sure many schools provided kids in need with three meals a day. Schools also must have skilled nurses, counselors and social workers on staff and should offer high-quality wraparound services, so kids have safe places to do homework or get extra help before or after school. Since the achievement gap starts well before kids enter kindergarten, it’s also important to make strong public pre-k programs available to low-income families.
But the truth is that these efforts alone won’t propel our students from the bottom to the top of the international rankings in key subjects, nor will they close the huge and unconscionable academic achievement gaps between low-income kids in our schools and their wealthier peers. To solve those problems, we also have to rethink how instruction is delivered and how our schools are led.
Unfortunately, the effects of poverty are exacerbated by structural disadvantages that plague our high-needs schools. Schools that serve poor kids are much more likely than other schools to have high teacher-turnover rates, out-of-field teachers or long-term substitutes in their classrooms, and inequitable resource allocations. All of these factors contribute to lower student achievement levels, and often they’re the result of obscure bureaucratic policies like last-in-first-out, seniority-based layoffs that force great teachers out of the classrooms in which they want to teach.
As a nation, we have to address these injustices, and we have to give the parents of children stuck in these schools the tools and authority to demand change. Their educational choices are unfairly limited by the nature of our neighborhood-based public school system and a lack of other economic options. While a middle-class family might move in order to send their kids to better schools, a family in poverty can rarely make that choice. So, it’s imperative that we empower low-income parents to turn around their kids’ schools and help with that effort. And we should embrace common-sense solutions that can improve our schools as a whole.
To begin with, low-income schools and districts should tackle the issue of attracting and keeping top teaching talent by offering higher salaries to effective educators willing to teach in and lead high-needs schools. Principals also must be freed from bureaucratic rules that prevent them from hiring and rewarding their own team. Too often, principals in low-income schools are forced to fill their vacancies with teachers excessed from other schools regardless of whether they are a good fit. These teachers may not be performing particularly well but have to be retained by the system because of seniority-based job protections. Principals in high-needs schools also must be allowed to reward their top-performing teachers with leadership roles and performance-based pay increases to help ensure they stay on the job. We allowed this in Washington, and many teachers told me the recognition and extra pay encouraged them to stick with teaching.
We also need strong evaluation systems to ensure that we’re recognizing high-performing teachers and helping others improve. A growing number of schools and districts are developing more robust evaluations to help build a talented and effective teaching force. In Washington, new evaluations linked to better feedback and professional development have led to an increase in the number of highly effective teachers working in the system. Now, a quarter of all teachers in D.C. have earned that top rating. In schools, districts, and states across the country, we’re starting to do what works, and starting to make a difference. It’s common sense, so why aren’t we doing this everywhere?
Too often, what is keeping us from replicating such success isn’t a lack of know-how. It’s a lack of faith. We can do better by our kids, but first we must believe in all of them and in our ability to help. If we do that, we can fix so much of what is wrong with our education system and what is keeping all of our children from reaching their potential.