Since the fall of 1977, when I accepted a position at Columbia University’s Teachers College and began my career in English Education, I have observed approximately two thousand five hundred middle school and high school English classes in four different states. When I have observed these classes, my questions have been consistent and simple. What is serving to engage and sustain the attention of the students in this class? What is hindering this engaged and sustained attention? How might the teacher I am observing improve his or her instruction so that more students’ are engaged more of the time? In my daily practice, that is, I am engaged in educational reform at the local level—the only level where educational reform truly matters, and the only level where it is likely to lead to improved student achievement.
So it comes as an affront to my sense of professional pride to have my commitment to educational reform hijacked by wealthy and well connected “reformers” who have had little or no experience in actual classrooms, observing actual teachers teach actual students.
It is particularly offensive when these so-called reformers describe their efforts as “the civil rights issue of our time.” And it is outrageous when they then go on to describe the attitudes of those of us working in the field, with the most disadvantaged students, as purveyers of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Some of the arrogance of the wealthy reformers now dominating the educational reform movement comes from their personal experience of being born on third base, as the saying goes, convinced that they must have hit a triple. But I suspect that an equally important source of this arrogance stems from an inability to see themselves as complicit in the deep rooted social problems they are attempting to address through educational reform alone.
I make this observation because of a curious and persistent omission in what these reformers say, and don’t say, about the causes of low student achievement. While we are fed daily dollops of “incontrovertible facts” about failing schools, poor teachers, and the need for choice between public and charter schools, there is almost no mention of the one fact of present-day American society that provides the strongest and most consistent correlation with school achievement.
This one salient fact is income inequality–a “gap” between our poorest and wealthiest citizens that has been widening steadily over the past thirty years. This growing gap in income levels has been mirrored quite precisely with a corresponding gap, also growing steadily over the past 30 years, in school achievement. A single example will help to convey why this gap has been so persistent in both areas. Following an earlier study of “word recognition” among 1-3 year old children from poor and wealthy households, a researcher from Stanford University recently conducted a new study, this time focusing on very young children, up to a year and a half. Quite alarmingly, she found that the same “achievement gap” we see in children once they begin attending school was clearly evident in poor vs well-to-do children at the extremely young age of eighteen months.
So what can be done? I would suggest that we start by acknowledging that student achievement will not improve unless we also address the issue of income inequality. Politicians and policy makers who proclaim that they will “fix” public schools, without addressing income inequality in the same breath, should be challenged to support their arguments with evidence. And perhaps we should also suggest that the most effective use of the abundant wealth of these so-called educational reformers, in relation to school achievement, would be to support broadly available and low-coast pre-natal care programs to the children of our poorest citizens. That would provide truly meaningful “educational reform.”