In a TFA training this weekend, we debated closing the achievement gap from a policy perspective. We read this article, which is amazing and worth reading, but if it’s too long for you I can summarize. It’s basically a discussion of whether we can close the achievement gap through good schools alone, or whether we need to improve communities in order to see real progress. They also argue about whether teachers are responsible for fighting for policies that will improve our students’ communities, or whether we should keep our efforts in our classrooms and let someone else do the lobbying. I love policy. This conversation had my name all over it.
What startled me most about our discussion was how many teachers (we’re all 2nd year TFA) were convinced that schools were not enough. Multiple people told those warm, fuzzy TFA success stories, only to end them in tragedy. Like the high school student who did great in school, but then got in a fight over the summer, put another kid in the hospital, and got four years in prison. Or the eighth grader who told his teacher, “I can make more than you do in one week on the streets. I can be anywhere in the Valley in 15 minutes. If I need to be armed, give me 20.” There was this painful acknowledgement in the room of the fact that we can’t keep kids in school 24/7, and when they’re outside everything can change in an instant. It’s terribly disheartening when you look at it like that.
But there are aspects of success that schools absolutely can control. For example, our kids can tell you what they want to be when they grow up, and many of them are invested in the idea that they want to be successful and school will be key. But stop and think about how much harder it is to become a doctor if you don’t know anyone who has ever been to college. You don’t know that you should do extracurriculars to boost your resume. You don’t know how, when, or why to take the SATs. You don’t know how to find scholarships. You don’t know the timeline for college applications, much less where you might want to apply to or where you have a reasonable chance of getting in. If you write applications, you don’t have anyone to proofread them. This leads to smart seniors walking up to my friends who teach high school and asking, in February, what they need to do to go to college the next year.
I blame the school culture for this much more than I blame the community culture. Were you the type of person who went to a high school that hosted SAT prep classes? Did everyone you knew take the SATs at the same time? Did you write college application essays in eleventh grade English? It helps to have your family pushing all these things for you, but schools can and do create a culture of going to college or of not going to college. The whole point of school is to teach kids, and it turns out that kids also need to be taught how to go about becoming successful. I’m going to venture that it’s the guidance counselor’s job even more than the parents’ job, especially if the kids want to go farther in life than their parents did. And this doesn’t just apply at the high school level. I should be teaching my kids about their high school options. I should be teaching them how to study. I should be showing them career options. I don’t care if the community does or doesn’t do it. This is one where schools are able to step up and do most of it themselves.