No surrender

Though both my father and I have several shortcomings, neither of us has much trouble speaking for ourselves. I know enough not to try to speak for Dad. So let me, finally, speak for myself concerning two recent Gadfly writings. (Find them here and here).

Poverty and racism do outrageous and inexcusable damage to millions of American children everyday. The damage done to these children diminishes each of us and our nation as a whole. Fighting poverty and racism is a moral obligation and patriotic duty that each of us bears.  

That said, as we wage the fight against poverty and racism, we cannot continue to allow these dark forces to excuse the educational malpractice inflicted on low-income, African-American, and Latino children every day in every part of this country. While most Americans believe education is the surest route out of poverty and the strongest weapon against racism, the fact is that our school systems are so riddled with inequities that our schools compound rather than ameliorate the damage that poverty and racism do.  Our education system takes the kids who have the very least to fall back on at home and in their neighborhoods and shortchanges them again at school.

Of course simultaneous and dramatic social, economic, and education reform is the ideal, but low-income students and students of color cannot be asked to wait for high-quality education until the stars align and the politicians - who daily demonstrate a stunning disregard for them, their families, and their communities - design, implement, and fund a comprehensive anti-poverty agenda.

Right now we know a lot about what is wrong with the schools that poor children and children of color attend. Right now we know a lot about how to fix these schools. Right now we know that when these children attend good schools they achieve at the highest levels - despite their poverty, race, or ethnicity. There is no excuse for not getting to work on these schools - right now.

But too many educators are waiting.

Faced with damage that racism and poverty inflict, too many educators have simply given in and given up on these children, insisting that as much as they care about these kids, they are powerless to change their life chances until someone else acts to improve the conditions of their families and their communities. And they back up these claims and their inaction with quotes from people like Messrs Mishel and Rothstein. In a very real sense these educators - with rhetorical support from Mishel and Rothstein - have surrendered to racism and poverty. And in doing so they have surrendered their students to dim future at the cold and lonely margins of our economic and cultural mainstream.

But some educators are not waiting and have not surrendered. These educators must not have yet read or heard Rothstein and Mishel and don't know that what they are doing is impossible. These are the educators who have chosen to fight, fight hard and smart against racism and poverty by teaching their students well - despite the challenges that racism and poverty present.  And fools that they are, these educators are helping poor, black and brown students gain the intellectual tools necessary not only to secure their own futures but also to do battle against racism and poverty on behalf of their communities. These educators are the true warriors against racism and poverty. Let's hope that they never learn that what they are doing can't be done!


Amy Wilkins is a principal partner at The Education Trust

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September 21, 2005