The Urgency of Fixing Schools

This week at school, I took a bit of my prep period to introduce myself and get to know one of my 5th graders who just transferred to the school. (Let’s call him Jim.) Born and raised in Philadelphia, he loves playing football, eating hot wings, and riding bikes with his brothers. I was immediately struck by his warmth and ease in conversation, despite being approached by a stranger. At that age, I tended to start counting the dots on floor tiles when adults tried to talk to me.

After a bit of small talk, I asked him about his old school. Exasperation exploded across his face, and he sighed. “That place was crazy. They was always fighting, and teachers never made us do nothing. We used to walk out of class and play in the hall.” His academic progress matched the school description: the baseline one-on-one reading test administered to him when he arrived at our school showed that he reads at a mid-1st grade level. In other words, after only 5 years of attending school he is 3.5 years behind, a chasm that statistics show is rarely closed.

I’ll put it bluntly: the fact that Jim had to attend his old school is a moral failing for which we are all culpable. Each day that ineffective, unsafe schools operate is a slap in the face to our society.

Opponents to school turnarounds cite the dangers about corporate involvement in education and spin romanticized, nostalgic tales about “traditional” public schools. While I’m not suggesting nefarious intent from those people, their concerns don’t help Jim and the thousands of other students attending schools that deny them their right to a quality education. For me, it is a simple question: Would you want your own child to attend that school? If not, something needs to be changed, and quickly.

My credentials as a “liberal” have been repeatedly questioned for my support of turnarounds, but what could be more liberal than wanting the same for all kids? As I’ve written previously, pointing to poverty as the root cause of educational equity doesn’t help kids attending terrible schools right now. We need to remember that Jim and his family aren’t interested in a sociological debate about whether poverty is the main cause of educational inequity; they just want good, safe, schools–an unquestionably reasonable request. And until it is fulfilled, we should cast unproductive debates and pie-in-the-sky policy goals aside.

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