Summary: Does the economic and social vitality in abundant evidence in locales across the country, but beneath the national radar, parallel equally vital school and kid centered programming that so far has failed to register in national educational statistics? Maybe so.
Donald Trump bleats his lies and trumpets the near fall of American civilization, while Hillary Clinton seems not to be able to inspire with a more positive, hopeful message. In the educational sphere, testing has knocked schools off kilter, and test scores in aggregate worry us the school reform movement has maybe been a tale of idiocy.
Call me fool in the face of these perpetual headlines, but I am resolutely optimistic – or if not optimistic, then hopeful — in this strident time, specifically in the long term outlook, though the task is that of another hundred years.
I take as my keynote James Fallows’ observations in the Atlantic on the “reinvention and renewal” of urban centers across America. In wide ranging travel around the country, in one setting after another he found small cities and large responding to the decay of an earlier era, or to the drain of jobs overseas, or to apparent hopelessness in the streets — with innovative social outreach, the creation of high tech industry, and urban spaces that have attracted vital human talent.
In parallel, my gut sense is that a vast reservoir of intelligent, focused research and widespread fervent practical application in schools and in the lives of school aged children eventually will pay dividends beyond the anecdotal. We had to try the testing regimen to learn its uses and its limitations. Meanwhile we have learned that poverty and its predations on the young can be a primary precursor to school failure and impede skill and emotional development. A pivot may be in the works to recognize the primacy of the relationships fostered by teachers and other adults in and around the schools, as well as those who work both pre- and postnatal settings with young mothers.
Just in my recent reading, elements of social agitation, new research, and creative programs in schools echoes Fallows’ optimistic view in the school arena. Here be some of what has passed my personal screen.
The Black Lives Matter movement is one case in point. Damn! Those folks just won’t let the righteous story rest. Good for them. It is yet another in an historical string of movements that call out the American conscience for continuing inaction on promises of equality, a very long time coming. Tactics may offend or disrespect, but no one should miss the essential hope in the protest, nor forget in cowering would be the death of American spirit. Until the African American gets his and her share, we can thank them for such upheavals, which also cast an urgent light on schools and the raising of the young.
And while we’re about social upheaval, there is that to the appeal of the charlatan Trump. Under-educated whites, disenfranchised by globalization and technology, and by the blind eye of elites of both parties, have found their champion, who sticks his finger in the eye of all convention. Amid the clutter of racist and xenophobic elements, there is the pain of sinking prospects and of dead end lives, starkly and ironically reminiscent of black and brown folk who are their neighbors in poverty. They clamor for leaders to heed them. So far only the snake oil salesman Trump has responded.
Too long without a share of the pie, all such folk find fault with the social contract, which must fundamentally shift, or crash. In such spirit, there is hope if also danger.
Meanwhile and quietly beyond the political bombast, the proportion of young people of color and of low income on campuses of higher education is lurching upward. 39% of college students qualify as low income. Fully 70% of black high school graduates in 2014 matriculated to a college or university. Sixteen percent of enrollment in higher ed in 2011 was Latino. The numbers fluctuate from year to year, and not all finish through to a diploma, but these migrations to campus portend a gathering of power, a synergy of purpose, and an expectation of a just place in society. Advocacy for the disenfranchised, in this view, has barely gathered steam; remember that Black Lives Matter has been sustained from college campuses, even in this day. These students grow to be adults in their communities, voters, parents involved in schools.
Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation has just funded an expansion of a program that mentors low income engineering students for an interim year, prior to fully enrolling in the mainstream program. The idea is to compensate for the sometimes inferior academic preparation low income kids have had; early incarnations of the program at the University of Washington, among others, have seen candidates graduate at a rate greater than the general engineering population.
At the other end of the educational spectrum, a recent study out of Stanford found that the gap between rich and poor children in readiness for kindergarten has narrowed significantly since 1998; this at a time when income inequality itself has grown. The researchers credit improved access to preschool for low income kids, and their parents’ heightened use of cognitively stimulating activities. Not only does this trend beg further investment in early childhood education, but in the fraught business of cultural change gives hope that precursor conditions are deepening for sustained academic progress.
An on-going revolution in neurobiology, based on brain scan technology, has established clearly that the stresses of growing up poor leave kids of poverty behind the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral eight ball long before they enter school. Not good news, but for the future an insistent call to early childhood education, and for ameliorative work with parents.
Also, in lower income predominately black neighborhoods, lead levels in the neighborhood continue to adversely affect cognitive development of young children, at a more sensitive level than heretofore thought. Again, not good news, but these findings offer another distinct avenue to travel toward academic resurrection of low income students.
Meanwhile, in and around schools themselves, latter day research has spawned school constructs that emphasize belonging to the school community and the critical value of relationships, collaborative learning, high expectations, and targeted mentoring. A couple such programs profiled by Paul Tough recently in the Atlantic are worth a review; such formulations balance the heretofore excessive reliance on skills testing as the gold standard in working with our young.
Innovative curricula in line with Tough’s testimony abound across the country, obvious to anyone who pays attention. The mystery is why these isolated progressions remain relatively unpublicized and too little replicated. Meanwhile early childhood interventions and lead remediation in fact have entered the headlines for some time, but also have not enjoyed any widespread policy embrace.
The point in this catalog is that the plight of poor kids and their schools has some parallel to the sluggish economy and the paralysis of politics. While the scene in the macrocosm seems elusive of solution — politics and economy, schools and kids — burbling upward in the cracks are unremarked sources of vitality that signal regeneration in some of the most troubled locales. One wonders if the dour pundit has completely missed ongoing micro- evolutions, and the seed of renewal that will bear full fruit only toward the longer run.
Perhaps we have nothing existential to lament but the lamentation itself.