Their Success is Our Country's Success
Answering these questions is critical to our success as a nation. We are in the midst of a crisis in our country that threatens the very fabric of our democracy. If you are born poor here, you will likely not have access to a good education. We have moved so far from the premise that public education is the great equalizer. What's worse, those who seek to oppose educational reforms that will improve the odds, are convinced that kids from poor families are not capable of more. We are hearing the rants of many who tell us "It's about the poverty," when describing the achievement gap. I can tell you that I have had many disturbing conversations with respected colleagues who have bluntly stated that we really can't expect our poor kids to perform any better. There is an undercurrent in this country that supports the achievement gap. Some believe that schools can only do so much and that they should not be held accountable for children's educational performance unless we FIRST address all of the underlying social issues. What is surprising about this is that under-performing schools ARE an underlying social issue. It is my belief that what supports our acceptance of the achievement gap is a lack of belief in our kids.
Perception Equals Reality
How can we break this cycle? We can begin right here and now by helping our kids believe in themselves and to expect them to finish high school and go to college. When I visit elementary schools, I often ask children to raise a hand or to stand up if they are going to college. The first time I did this in a poor, urban school, I shuddered at the response. Only a little over half of the kids stood up. Then I started thinking of the reality for these kids. In this particular school, fewer than half of the children would be reading at grade level by the time they went on to middle school. Fewer than 60% would graduate from high school. I realized that their own beliefs matched the real data from the district.
Rituals and Routines
There are very simple things that can impact the expectations of parents and kids. We need to think about all of the things we do, including every day routines and important rituals, that impact perception. One example is the use of caps and gowns at "graduations." Many preschools, elementary schools and middle schools routinely use the ritual of a cap-and-gown ceremony to mark the transition from one level to the next. Some even play traditional graduation music and have valedictorians and all of the bells and whistles of a high school commencement ceremony. Once when I questioned the use of such things at an 8th grade ceremony, a mom said, "We have to have these things because this is probably the only graduation she will ever have." Wow. This mom was telling me she expected her child to drop out of high school. I wish I could tell you that was the only time I ever heard something like this - but I have heard similar things from parents, kids, and educators so often that I am confident expectations are very low.
Schools that have high graduation and college-going rates do small things that communicate a big message. They may name classrooms or areas of study after colleges and universities. They take children on field trips to colleges beginning in elementary school. Teachers hang their diplomas on classroom walls and talk about their experiences. Some schools have academic pep rallies complete with mascots from adopted colleges. Other schools have changed career days to college days. Parents, alumni, teachers and others in the community talk to students about the college they attended, highlighting the work it took to get there and what they loved about it.
The key to improving rituals and routines is to question everything. Ask, "What messages will our students receive if we do this?" If the ritual or routine conveys the wrong message, consider alternatives that will turn each activity or event into an opportunity to support a "college-going culture."
Perhaps the most powerful thing that can be done is to agree on words. Educators and parents can communicate expectations. Instead of just asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, try this. "When you graduate from high school and go to college, what do you think you might want to study?" "When you graduate from high school and go to college, where do you think you might want to live?" If a child is expressing a typical frustration over the lack of freedom that childhood often brings, say, "When you graduate from high school and go to college, you can make your own decisions." Reframe everything into this expectation at every opportunity.
Schools Create a College-Going Culture
Whether you are parent, educator, or concerned citizen, you can start the process. Most of the things I am describing do not cost any money. It just takes belief in our kids and intent. Put a group together today and see what you can do to help our kids get the education they deserve.