As your Dropout Nation editor, I often try to approach the debates over the reform of American public education with dispassionate analysis and furious, passionate writing. My insight comes from my reporting, often guided by data over anecdotes, a set of first principles, my Christianity and my sense of justice. But for me, this is no academic exercise, no bloodless public policy discussion. And I am constantly reminded that we must reform education because there are real lives, real men and women, who deserve better than fifth-rate.
One of those reminders is this picture right here. It is of a happy young girl, running in around in 1927 just two years before she was to go to school. Take away the black-and-white, and the period clothes, and she looks like any young girl walking around the streets in any neighborhood in America today.
The young girl in that photo is my dear departed grandma. The first years of her life involved joining my great-grandmother along the tracks of the Long Island Railroad, gathering coal that dropped from the trains, so that they could heat their shack in Roslyn, N.Y., and cook food. My grandmother the first nine years of her life mired in the kind of bitter poverty unimaginable even now. Even with that, she was as happy as any young girl could be. But she could barely read.
By the time my great-grandparents managed to get out of poverty into a relatively comfortable life (or as nice as maids and low-skilled workers could do for the time), moving from Roslyn to a nicer home in nearby Mineola, grandma had been to school. But the quality of her education was, to be kind, abysmal and subpar. By the tine she attended fourth grade, she was far behind her peers. And while my great-grandparents did their best to give her a loving home, their level of educational attainment was barely above signing Xs on documents.
My grandma could have remained mired in that state, on the way to dropping out. For the times she lived in, this would have been okay because education wasn’t necessarily critical to earning a living — and this would remain that way until the end of the 1970s. But my grandmother got lucky: She had what we would now call a high-quality teacher, who cared for her well-being, who worked with her on reading and her studies and got her to grade level and beyond. By the time grandma graduated from Mineola High School in 1942, she had been accepted to Wilberforce University, the first person in our family to attend college.
It was education that helped her get out of being poor and into a comfortable middle class life. It was education that helped my grandma provide the knowledge and loving household my mother and I needed to succeed in life. It was education that helped my mother, a single mother of three, get into good-paying jobs that she needed to keep a roof over our head. It is education that, in short, has helped my family, only a generation removed from slavery on my mother’s side, stay out of housing projects, out of Bed-Stuy and the South Bronx, and achieve things that my grandma could only dream about.
I tell this story for three reasons. The first: To remind everyone, including education traditionalists, that the argument that education cannot help move young men and women out of poverty — and that good-to-great teachers cannot transform the lives of children and keep them on the path to success in life — is absolutely ridiculous. Given the evidence from William Sanders and others than high-quality teaching is a more-critical determinant of student achievement than socioeconomic background — and the 1966 Coleman Report’s conclusion that if teaching is of high-quality, schooling will be a bigger factor than socioeconomic background — it is time for the Dana Goldsteins and Diane Ravitches to stop arguing the Poverty Myth of Education that deserves to be tossed into the trashbin.
The second reason? Because the reality remains that for far too many children, it is as haphazard to get a high-quality education now as it was during grandma’s youth in the worst days of the Great Depression. It is more than a tragedy and a travesty when one-third of our fourth-graders are functionally illiterate. It is absolutely immoral and intolerable. If you don’t find this state of affairs in American public education to be intolerable — and its underlying causes to be abhorrent — then I’d like to check your pulse. Because you can’t possibly be human.
And finally, I tell this story because it explains why I approach this education crisis so personally. I know, public policy types, including Beltway reformers, sometimes hate getting personal, dislike naming names, and prefer academic sparring to strong conversations that include calling people on the carpet for faulty thinking. But remember this: For every child, their future is intensely personal. We only have one shot, every day, with every child, to help them get the education they need so they can have futures worthy of their aspirations. The fierce urgency of right now isn’t just some X-axis on a chart.
For me, this isn’t just some bloodless public policy discussion. The young men and women being condemned to poverty and prison look just like I did when I was a child. They look just like my grandmother in her youth. They look like my nephew, my niece and my young cousins — and the children my wife and I will have one day. These are kids who are told every day, in word and deed, by teachers and principals who don’t belong in schools, that they can never amount to anything. And I am incensed every time I consider how hard it is even for middle-class black and Latino families such as mine to ensure that our children are taught by high-quality teachers and get rigorous, college preparatory curricula — and furious when I think about kids in the poorest communities who are forced to attend failure factories because many of us continue to defend a failed, amoral vision.
And it is personal because each day, I listen to men and women, who look just like my grandmother looked as a young parent, who struggle each and every day with principals who ignore them, laggard teachers who condescend them, and adults all around more concerned with preserving influence than with helping their children succeed. After listening to their stories — and listening to those of their children — there is no way to not take this personally.
This writer isn’t just pulling this out of the air. Martin Luther King was as willing to challenge segregationists publicly and by name as he was willing to play nice. The Founding Fathers were among the sharpest-tongued men that ever lived, challenging an actual monarch. As with every movement in the past, there will be a need to have harsh, hard, conversations in which we hold men and women accountable for defending ideas that are indefensible.
This doesn’t mean going after the personal lives of people or calling people nasty names. When it comes to discussions in Congressional hearings and in public policy meetings, the bloodless language is quite appropriate. One should choose words carefully, not carelessly, and sometimes, say or write nothing at all. And should all shake hands and say hello, and even, be able to socialize on occasion, without rancor; we are civil human beings, not savages, and besides, you can’t move people to your side if you call them out and behave like a boor all at the same time. But it does mean calling people on the carpet for the mismatch between their ideals and their practices, especially when they don’t want to acknowledge it.
Certainly we must be thoughtful about our rhetoric. But, as Arthur Koestler would say, one should advocate furiously, ruthlessly, or don’t bother. When 150 young men and women drop out each our into economic and social despair, the school reform movement has to take the waste of these lives personally — and offer rhetoric to match. Or, in short, think about your grandmother and about how every child looked like she once did.