This week as I returned to my college campus, full of students already busy swapping stories of their summer adventures and revelations, I’ve found that despite my own personal excitement my summer accounts haven’t exactly wooed the crowd. This summer I interned at SCORE, a nonprofit working to bring stakeholders and policy makers together to push for more innovative reform within education. I got to speak with the movers and shakers of Tennessee politics, and most of all I got to be a part of a team of incredible people working to create change within the education reform movement. Sounds awesome, right? That’s what I thought. However, somehow amid the “oohs” and “ahs” of stories about cruising the Mediterranean and cross-country road trips, the biggest reaction I’ve received has been nothing more than the obligatory “Oh … fun.”
While to some this anecdote could be evidence of my apparent need to have more interesting summers, I instead choose to see it as yet another example of what I consider to be one of the most pressing, yet under-addressed problems hindering progress within education reform: the relevancy gap.
It’s true. Unless you are a parent who can’t afford to move out of the district zoned for the “bad school,” or a teacher dealing with a shrinking salary and growing class sizes, or a student trying to learn in a school where there aren’t even enough books to go around, what reason do you really have to care about education reform? And while I’m not suggesting that my friends and so many others don’t see these things as a problem, we are, in this county, afflicted by a certain degree of apathy. Why? Because keeping that parent, that teacher, and that student at a distance makes it easier for us to go about our lives — it makes it easier for us to do nothing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to point the finger. I, too, was guilty of looking the other way not too long ago. Growing up in the upper-middle class, attending a well-to-do private school in a community where college was the obvious next step and excellence was expected, it was easy to forget that your reality is just that … your reality. That all changed for me when I met Kira.
Last year I started working at a Nashville public high school. Three times a week I would sit in a crowded room with several other Vanderbilt students and tutor high-school freshmen and sophomores. Kira was one of them. After an awkward introduction we started working together, but it didn’t take long for me to see that the trouble she was having with the material (we were working on factoring) was deeper than just confusion around the concept of how to factor — her problems were foundational. How can you expect someone to learn how to factor, when no one has ever taken the time to make sure they even understand multiplication? Multiplication! But when you’ve been passed through a system and a community that’s short on money and expectations, it’s easy to slip through the cracks. How can you expect a student to want to succeed, when success has never been expected of them?
After a lot of corny jokes on my part to break the ice, we became friends — which has been great, really for both of us. We worked together all year and she learned quickly and brought her D up to a B+, which was a surprise to her, but I knew she could all along. She wanted to learn, and all she needed was someone to invest time in her. What struck me the most about her was that she reminded me of myself in so many ways, but her journey had been so different from mine, and doors that I had practically been ushered through were closed to her for no other reason than the nature of the lives into which we had been born.
I’m not trying to say that money and more systematic changes aren’t needed — because they are, and desperately so — but I am saying that half the battle is changing perceptions and raising expectations. Something must be done. All children possess the capacity to learn, and deserve to have achievement be expected of them. The fact that schools are failing to give our children an equal opportunity to do so should serve as a wake up call — it was for me.
Raising the tide lifts all boats. No one benefits from wasted potential. Once enough people truly feel invested, change will come. Closing the relevancy gap doesn’t take complex legislation or a fancy budget deal — all it takes is you deciding to care.