So my roommate is a 2012 CM and we were having a really good conversation last night about the vision and mission of Teach for America. I’m not going to go too deep into what we discussed, but it got me thinking – what does “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education” really mean, and what does it say about the role TFA plays in education reform?
Why not “One day, all children in this nation will receive an excellent education” – it’s shorter, simpler, and more to the point – but the subtle difference between giving all kids the same opportunity and giving all kids the same education is quite important and is the missing link in the link between TFA and charters.
Taking advantage of an excellent education is the most effective means of breaking free of the cycle of poverty. Yes, there are other ways to go from rags to riches, but making sure your children have access to and take advantage of an excellent education is by far the most consistent way of ensuring that they will have at least a middle-class income once they become adults. So much so that parents who really care will go through hell and high water to make sure their kids have better opportunities than they did.
There are many causes for the achievement gap, but given TFA’s vision statement, I believe that TFA’s hypothesis is that the main cause of the gap is unequal opportunity and unequal access to excellent education. In other words, the end goal is to ensure that students in low-income areas had the same access to an excellent education as upper-middle-class students. My guess is that if enough students had access then enough students would be able to break the cycle of poverty to completely change the conversation we have about the achievement gap. Personally, I agree with TFA’s hypothesis because I lived my life by it – I grew up in abject poverty, but had access to an excellent education – subsequently, I was able to climb from my family’s household income (still less than $20k) to an upper-middle-class income.
Income and wealth impact student achievement in a myriad of ways, but perhaps the most significant is that families in higher income brackets have more choice when it comes to education than low-income families. To understand this, imagine 3 families – a low-income family, a middle-class family, and an upper-class family all living in the same zip code. Each family has an 8th grader that they are about to send to the local high school, which has a 66% graduation rate and no AP classes.
The low-income family has no choice – they have to send their child to the high school, even if there is a 1 in 3 chance their child will drop out. They have no money (and, frankly, no support from society) to afford any other choices. They just don’t have access to an excellent education.
The middle-income family can send their child to the high school – but because they have some disposable income, they can also afford to send their child to a lower-cost local private school. They can also afford to pay for SAT classes or enroll their child in local community-college courses to fill in the gap created by a lack of AP classes. Their child’s access to an excellent education is greater than the low-income family’s. They have more choice - of course the family will have to sacrifice to ensure they have more choice (not just financially, they may have to send their child to a private school with a religious doctrine they don’t necessarily believe in), but at least they have access.
Needless to say, the upper-income family can send their child to an excellent private school, hire a private-tutor, or just plain move to a better district. Their choice is even greater and the sacrifice to attain it is smaller relative to their wealth.
At the end of the day, any of these three kids can end up in the college, and any one of them can drop out of high school. Just because the upper-income child goes to Exeter doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed a spot at Harvard – they don’t have to take advantage of the excellent education they have access to. After all, you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. But because the lower-income child doesn’t have access to an excellent education, they may never have the opportunity to attend and thrive at a highly competitive college, regardless of how strong their work ethic is. And that’s the disparity that I believe TFA is trying to solve – the disparity at the heart of “One day” and equal opportunity.
So how do we get to this point where all kids have the same opportunity to succeed? Certainly it’s not because one day every child will have a TFA teacher – TFA will grow to 10,000 corps members this coming year – a drop in the bucket compared to the roughly 7,200,000 teachers in the United States according to the 2009 census. Indeed, Teach for America’s realization of its vision has almost nothing to do with whether Corps Members are able to drive miracles in their first year of teaching. It has to do with the degree to which CMs are outraged by their experience – outraged by their first-hand account of how profoundly unfair life is for the students that they teach – outraged by how their students have been systematically robbed of access to an excellent education – outraged by how seemingly simple it would be to drastically improve the quality of education their students have access to. My hypothesis is that One Day will come not because every year 5,000 CMs are super-effective in their first year of teaching, but because every year 5,000 CMs will dedicate their lives towards providing greater access to an excellent education for low-income communities, regardless of what specifically they end up doing.
One Day will come when all families have choice. It will come when low income families don’t have to send their children to their one local school option, but rather, have the option to send their children to an excellent school – the kind that only upper-middle class children can go to. This is nothing if not a progression of Brown v. Board of Education – it used to be that the law itself forbid all african american students from attending high-performing white schools. Now, the law forbids most african americans and hispanic students from attending high-performing mostly-white (or asian) schools.
One day will come when the segregation that is district-based single option schooling is finally broken down and done away with, and all parents have the same opportunity to choose an excellent education for their children. This won’t result in equal outcomes (nor should it) but that was never the goal – the goal was equal opportunity, and equal opportunity can’t happen all at once – it has to happen one child at a time, one day at a time until One Day is reached.
And this, readers, is where charter schools come in. For all the praise and criticism that has been heaped upon charter schools in the last decade, one thing stands as fact – charter schools provide low-income families with more choice than they would have had before these schools existed, and choice is inherently empowering. Just as Brown v. Board moved the needle for minority families to give their children a greater choice of schools, the charter movement has also increased the number of options.
It’s heartbreaking to watch a movie like Waiting for Superman and see an auditorium of families desperately clutching lottery tickets for Harlem Success Academies, knowing only 1 in 20 will have the choice to send their children to a charter school – but it’s also incredibly uplifting to know that that auditorium used to have 767 children of which 0 would have had a choice – now has 767 children of which 35 now have a choice – and may one day have 767 children of which 767 have a choice. Choice is like democracy – once you let it loose, it’s impossible to put back in the box as people demand more and more of it, until everyone has it. I’m not suggesting this is going to happen overnight, but it’s not impossible that it will happen within our lifetimes.