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School Reformers are Right to Be Angry

SCHOOL REFORMERS are right when they raise angry voices toward the injustice our society commits against low-income and minority kids. The anger is entirely justified.

Though her policies were misguided, Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee had the emotions right. We should all be outraged at how our society encourages some kids to dream big and diminishes the dreams of working-class, poor and minority children in the world's richest nation.

The reason school reformers have not come close to closing the achievement gap between students from low-income and affluent families is that they are fighting the Third World War with bows and arrows.

Educational under-achievement flows from the real-life experiences of working-class adults who are trying to survive, and the messages their struggles send about formal institutions and adult authority figures to the children who love them. Kids learn--from their parents' difficult struggles to keep jobs, pay bills and avoid deportation--that their society is an inhospitable place.

The way to change these attitudes is to change the reality that produces them. Schools are weak institutions for passing on values and motivations when compared to intensity of family relationships. Thus, schools cannot overcome the symptoms of poverty except in at best a large minority of cases.

Besides generous immigration reform, the policies we must have to close the "achievement gap" involve government and private sector policies that raise the living standards and stability of the urban working class family. These include ensuring higher wages and job security, expanding the social safety net to replicate the social supports of other wealthy nations and protecting gains made in expanding health care coverage to all Americans.

The vast majority of Americans, regardless of ethnicity or country of origin, should come to expect a middle-class quality of life. The school reform documentary, Waiting for Superman, was right in pointing to Finland as a model worthy of emulation, because it is largely a middle-class society, with fewer individuals per capita very rich or very poor, with stronger unions and offering a wider array of child welfare programs.

In addition to ensuring a range of public school options in our inner cities, these policies are necessary to bring most families into the middle-class lifestyle, and from that safe and secure place, the children of working families will approach teachers and schools with healthy, positive attitudes and with the capacity to imagine brighter futures.


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