Thursday, May 28, 2009

Educational Alchemy

Over the coming months, we can expect to see an increase in the number of stories about "heroic exceptions" in schools. These are places that overcome the ravages of poverty and still produce outstanding results. The trouble with these stories is there is a grain of truth to them. Education has always been about alchemy--turning base metal into gold. Most educators choose that profession because they believe they can make a difference. And most do to some extent. But as child poverty rates soar (from 18% in 2007 to a projected 28.3% in 2010) we need more than a few making a difference. We need someone weaving straw into gold 24/7

. There are certainly wonderful stories out there of schools that do a miraculous job of raising student achievement despite overwhelming odds. This has always been true. America is a land of heroic execptions. The fabric of the American dream is woven with these stories. Abe Lincoln went from a log cabin to the White House. But sadly, most people who grow up in grinding poverty tend to stay there. Being born in Kennebunkport or Hyannisport is a surer path to the White House. I have seen very few people with money giving it all away so they can benefit from the challenge of overcoming the odds.

Heroic exceptions will not get it done. For a long time school folks had to listen to the argument that "money doesn't matter." These arguments were usually made by those with the money. I have yet to hear someone without money make that case. As the greed and prolifigancy of the last two decades have undercut that notion, we hear that argument less and less. Money does seem to matter and if you don't have it, it reallly matters. So now we have a new mantra. Poor kids can achieve if only they are educated by people who believe in them. We have attacked the "soft bigotry of low expecations." But we haven't heard much about the hard bigotry of high expecations without adequate support. It is comforting to believe that we can overcome the effects of poverty by diligence. I had a successful fellow tell me once that people are poor because they choose to be. That is no doubt true for a few. But it is a big lie for the many.

So a softer version now is that if we just expect more from kids, they will rise to the challenge. That is also true, to a certain extent. But it is even more true that children with lots of needs have lots of needs and wishing them away is the vilest form of bigotry. I am glad we have a few schools who, because of great leadership or a special support system, have moved poor kids towards success. The real question is how will we do that for all the poor kids in poor schools? We can certainly benefit from learning about how these heroic exceptions become exceptional but we should start by understanding that we can't weave straw into gold. Gold comes from digging deeply and it takes a huge effort. We shouldn't be trying to bury the truth of the effects of poverty with a handful of feel good stories.

1 comment:

C Ochoa said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dr. Houston article on Educational Alchemy. It is enlightening and has a distinct ring of truth!