The challenge is beyond school


By Frank Wessling

The education of Iowa children has been a hot topic since Governor Terry Branstad opened his drive for “World-Class Schools” in the state.

We’ve had organized discussions across the state involving educators, policy makers and citizens. We’ve been energized by worry that our children haven’t been getting the education they need to flourish in today’s very competitive world.

The result so far is a plan that focuses on finding, training and supporting the people who will be better teachers. After No Child Left Behind, the federal legislation that gave extraordinary — and it now appears excessive — attention to testing, a shift to teaching itself and the people who do it is needed. The right track is seldom clear and steady in education policy but this seems to be a better track.

One of the goals of better teachers and better teaching will be closing the achievement gap between children of the haves and have-nots. This is the real challenge, the continuing challenge for all of American society, not just Iowa and not just the field of education.


Some children come to school from homes where they absorb a broad interest in life, where they hear language used with care and precision, where food is adequate and nourishing, where the attention they receive is comforting, where they have begun to learn that work, including the work of study, is worthwhile. Some children come to school without this foundation.

These are the haves and have-nots who tend to go separate ways in school. Only with truly extraordinary attention and support in the school setting does a child from a poor background manage to do as well as her and his middle-class peers. This has been, and continues to be, a tragedy affecting education. Educators themselves know it; the rest of us can avoid that unpleasant reality.

There is no real “crisis” in American education apart from that one. Test scores from schools with few students from poor homes are as good as any from around the world. And the school achievement gap between black and white children was cut in half in the decades immediately following the civil rights achievements and “war on poverty” legislation of the 1960s. Why? Because more black children were gaining the benefits of a hope-filled middle-class life at home and Head Start assistance for school.

Then that progress stopped, at about the same time that income gains stopped for the poor and lower half of the middle class. Shifts in the American economy away from production to services were especially hard on minorities, contributing to a disintegration of the black family. Around two-thirds of black children now are born to unmarried women and most live in female-headed single-parent homes. They come to school from a different world than their white classmates.

All of this is seldom part of the public discussion around education policy because it’s not about education. It’s about our society, the fundamental way we live together. It’s life before and after school, not in school.

It’s where we are asked to think about and do something about the poverty that blights so many young lives. It’s our politics and our priorities for public life, priorities that have so much to do with the distribution of hope in personal life. Where there is hope, we stretch ourselves, we work, we risk, we marry, we stay together and work together through tough times, we point our children in many ways toward a hopeful future — and they tend to respond.

The distribution of hope in public life is an element in our sense of shared community. Are we in this together, in mutual sympathy and support, or not? That is the question. It’s not clear even to many in the middle class today that we do have a fully shared community, and this seems to be driving the protests that began on Wall Street. The protesters expected and began a life full of hope; then it began to disintegrate.

Young children should not have to start life with the same feeling, yet this is what we allow with our toleration of so much poverty and inequality of resources. It’s unfair, and an impossible assignment, to give schools and teachers alone the responsibility for building hope, and the energy stirred by hope, in these children.

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