As I See It by Cynthia Tucker — With his rousing State of the Union speech, President Obama almost had me persuaded, once again, that he can change a political culture that is self-indulgent, hyperpartisan and steeped in monied special interests.
WASHINGTON — As one snowstorm spilled into another and cabin fever struck my house, a friend suggested I let my 13-month-old watch cartoons.
"She shouldn't have school today. It's a snow day!"
The remark about "school" was a teasing reference to my practice of reading to my toddler every day, trying to teach her the alphabet and keeping her away from TV. Those practices are pretty standard among middle-class American parents; they're the same ones my parents used to rear their children.
Middle-class child-rearing habits — which usually include other enriching activities, such as the zoo, museums, the aquarium — show up in school achievement. It's no big secret why the family income level is the best predicter of a kid's success in school, or why middle-class suburban schools have higher test scores than poor urban ones.
For decades now — at least as far back as the 1960s and the creation of Head Start — educational activists and reformers have tried to find a way to close the learning gap between middle-class kids and poor ones. George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind was another well-meaning attempt, but it hasn't had much success, either.
Instead of closing the gap, No Child has led to a test fetish and, unfortunately in some cases, cheating on tests. Georgia's public schools are currently enmeshed in a cheating scandal in which adults are suspected of changing answers on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, thereby raising the scores used to measure a school's academic performance. Many of those schools are in less-affluent Atlanta neighborhoods.
A cheating scandal reinforces U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's oft-stated claim that students, especially those in poor neighborhoods, are frequently "lied to" about the effectiveness of their educational preparation. But as the Obama administration readies its own remedies for closing the achievement gap between the poor and the middle-class, it's worth asking: Can it be done? Does anything work? Should the nation even try?
Educating all of our children, including those from poor and dysfunctional homes, is clearly in the national interest. In a globally competitive market, and with nations like China and India emphasizing high-quality education, we simply cannot afford not to educate everybody.
And it does no good to point fingers at parents — some of them busy trying to make ends meet, some of them functionally illiterate, some of them simply irresponsible. No child chooses to be born into a home without the obvious advantages.
I've heard from too many public schoolteachers who blame their students' poor performance on their parents' failures. That suggests to me those teachers don't have much faith in their students' ability to learn or in their own ability to teach them. It's no wonder, then, that some educators might resort to cheating to raise test scores.
But children from poor households can succeed, as innovative schools around the country have already shown. One of those schools is Washington's SEED Public Charter School, a boarding school built in 1998 in a down-at-the-heels, crime-scarred neighborhood on the southeast side. According to its founders, more than 90 percent of its graduates go on to college.
Another is Atlanta's private Ron Clark Academy, which came to national attention when a group of its students performed during Obama's inauguration. While its student body encompasses varied socioeconomic backgrounds, half of its students come from homes earning less than $28,000 a year, according to Clark, the founder. Yet, Clark says, test scores are "through the roof."
What do those schools have in common? Teachers and administrators are convinced the children can learn. "The more we expect of kids, the more they achieve," Clark said.
He said choosing teachers "is the most important decision we make." He looks for teachers who are "excited, passionate teachers, who love the kids."
If Duncan, the education secretary, is to have a shot at closing the achievement gap, he'll have to find a way to replicate that passion and excitement in poor neighborhood schools around the country.
Reach Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her blog at blogs.ajc.com/cynthia-tucker.