Reflections on Baltimore

(Originally posted May 6, 2015)

I live in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor, about 15 minutes south of Baltimore.  Two of my adult daughters live in the city in neighborhoods that are considered safe, affordable, middle class and friendly places to live.  But Baltimore, like most cities, is also stricken with big pockets of generational poverty, and all the variety of social phenomena associated with it.  This all spilled onto the national stage in recent weeks, but the problem is pervasive, and in different ways, affects cities, rural towns, and counties all over our nation.

The poverty we’re talking about is not just a measure of income, but represents a tough mix of family and home dynamics that dramatically impacts children.  And those are the children who show up in our schools, deserving a high quality education.

When it comes to how educators or policymakers see poverty and education, they veer to one of two extremes.

One extreme says, the challenges of the home, community, and poverty are too great.  Educators can’t fix the home – and we can’t overcome the deficits that children arrive with. “The problem is poverty” I saw one local school board candidate say, as to explain all the challenges that schools face with students from poor families.  But since the school system can’t “fix poverty,” the implicit message was that the schools are not really accountable for how well students from poverty fare.

The other extreme really doesn’t take poverty into account.  Accountability systems often provide grades for schools and teachers that are based on an objective benchmark — test scores that represent “college and career readiness.”  Schools are rated as “good” schools, “mediocre” schools, or “bad” schools, based on aggregate test scores.  But are these scores really objective if they do not take into account the nature of the challenges that children attending that school face?

I know there are some schools and states that use scoring mechanisms that take poverty into account, but my observation is that, most of the general public still identifies the “good” schools as the affluent schools.

Those of us advocating for pathways need to promote a balanced message, since some children, and therefore the schools that welcome them, face much greater challenges than others.  We need to talk about schools with regard to the impact they’re having on a child’s progress, not just as a measure of the family resources a student brings with them to school.  And we should advocate for impactful, reality-based social services and initiatives to help poor parents find good work, and get the skills and retraining they need.  And we need to fix flawed social policies that create an all-or-nothing approach to work, such as our current social security disability system.

But we also must hold our education system accountable for making all the impact it can on students.  We must be vigilant in seeking out better ways to help every student that walks through the school door.  This requires a culture of innovation and measuring impact, not just good intentions.

At NC3T, we welcome the tough problems.  We know the Pathways System Framework is an important piece of the puzzle needed to engage students in learning about and moving toward a positive and productive future.  There is a strong research base to support the worth of the Pathways model. All the research on pathways is documented in my new book, The Power and Promise of Pathways, as well as the how-to’s to create effective Pathway Programs and Pathways Systems.  However, pathway programs are not a panacea or a cure-all, and even communities that have adopted pathways haven’t seen all the growth in student achievement that they want to see. Let’s keep moving forward, learning, getting better in our work, and creating high impact learning for America’s youth and adults.

This is our lasting response to the challenge of Baltimore and all that it represents.

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