Fixing Education Takes More than Fixing Schools

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Thirty years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released the seminal report, “A Nation At Risk,” highlighting a dangerous and growing achievement gap, particularly among ethnic groups and poor kids. Thirty years later we are only marginally less at risk.

The overarching verdict of this 1983 report cited poor academic performance, high levels of functional illiteracy, and declining standardized test scores. It sounded an alarm that galvanized the nation to place education at the top of the national agenda, and its findings fueled billions of dollars in public and private investment dedicated to closing that achievement gap.

These myriad resources were targeted to reform how well our schools deliver education based on a set of assumptions, many of which have proved untrue. Reform efforts assumed accountability standards would drive increased performance and that greater performance can be achieved without parental engagement. But these assumptions and other assumptions ignored the broader education culture in which kids are immersed outside of school yet is a critical element of their success within it.

Culture varies widely among communities and among families in the same community, regardless of their economic or social circumstances. Messages include expectation regarding work ethic, value of academic achievement, importance of devoting resources and support to schoolwork, and the connection between education and economic empowerment. A culture that values education includes adults reading to children and talking about their kids’ futures, exposing kids to possible work options and helping them attend learning opportunities outside of school, and recognizing their efforts when they accomplish as well as when they struggle and persist.

The significance a community attaches to learning influences students’ motivation, work ethic and persistence — not to mention their abilities to overcome obstacles, such as learning differences or health challenges that contribute to academic success. Educational culture of a family or a school neighborhood may be a more direct predictor of school success than socioeconomic status.

Dr. Angel Harris writes in his 2012 book “Kids Don’t Want to Fail” that all parents, including vulnerable ones, want their kids to do better than they did and understand that education is key. If this is true, we have knowledge and skill gaps among too many parents about what they need to do to help their kids succeed.

In addition to making our schools more effective places for kids to learn, we need to strengthen the conditions that set kids’ attitudes, beliefs and a growth mindset about learning before they take that first walk to school. We need to ensure kids are prepared to take advantage of what happens in school once they arrive — to prevent gaps from occurring in the first place by developing and sustaining healthy, positive kids who are prepared to actualize their full potential.

If we’re to catch up with our global competitors, learning can no longer remain the sole purview of the schoolhouse because, after all, the opportunity to learn happens everywhere — in our homes, at the grocery store, in recreation centers and youth agencies, and in our faith institutions. Commensurate investment is essential to help parents become better at their jobs as their kids’ first teachers, ensure kids are ready to learn and reinforce learning outside of school.

Preventing gaps in learning is about acculturating kids to learn, including supporting their basic needs for housing and food. We need a 360-degree force field around which all kids begin to feel that learning is what they do — that learning is the norm.

Reading is a fundamental behavior of an educated person. Learning to read is a gateway behavior — not a luxury. While technology may increasingly change the format in which kids access information, it won’t reduce the need for the skill itself. Other behaviors such as numeracy, writing, studying, curiosity and effort are as essential. We can motivate the development of these behaviors by recognizing and celebrating them when we see them. Here all adults who work with youth have a unique opportunity to do more.

If we consider the things we celebrate in our society, education or the accomplishments derived through it would not be among them. Yet, celebration is a norm that communicates what a society or organization values or believes is important. We have no television shows highlighting our high school or college valedictorians or presidential or merit scholars, yet we have the Oscars, the ESPY Awards and the Grammy’s. We have no reality shows depicting the lives of young people who are struggling against immense odds to chart successful paths for themselves, yet we have “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” and “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.” Across all media forms, what we highlight about education is what isn’t working and who’s to blame.

As we head back to school this year, let’s mitigate the nation’s risk by reinforcing a culture of educational excellence that’s predicated on fostering learning in and outside of school. Let’s start by promoting the things kids might investigate, experience and learn this year instead of the “cuts” they might get, “fits” they might buy, and the supplies they will need. What we say signals what’s important.

Etienne R. LeGrand is the CEO and co-founder of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society and an education strategist.