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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 10 2013

How to fix the achievement gap — part 3

I’ve written a couple of other blogs about my evolving attitudes on fixing the achievement gap.  This one will probably be the most personal out of all of them, because one of the big problems with the achievement gap has come home to roost in my family.  I have a wonderful son who came to Oklahoma with us.  He began having trouble at school last year and the problems increased exponentially this year.  I’m not going to go into all the details, but I’ve got a 9th grader who reads at a 12-grade level, who was failing multiple subjects.  Truancy became an issue.  He was jumped by what I suspect were gang members the first week of school and beaten up.  There developed other problems that I would not feel comfortable getting into here in such a public forum, but they were serious enough to get him before a judge in juvenile court.

The problems didn’t spill over into behavior at home.  He was his normal, affable, courteous, respectful self with us.  The problems all revolved around school and his fellow students.  The crazy thing is that my kid goes to one of the best schools in the state, not one of the achievement gap schools.  Although I came to Oklahoma to fight the achievement gap, I didn’t want my kid in one of the failing schools.  In the end, the schools, the teachers, their expectations, the curriculum, the administrators, and everything else had zero impact.  If the teachers in one of the highest-rated high schools in the state can’t keep a kid in school–a kid who can solve a Rubic’s cube in less than 30 seconds, who writes beautiful poetry, and plays multiple musical instruments at a professional level of skill–then how is any school or teacher going to affect change in the worst, failing schools in the state?

After a few months of declining grades, disciplinary problems, truancy, and other problems, my wife and I came to a conclusion.  We had to get our child out of a nice school that was simply a facade.  We had to pull our son out and home-school him.  What other options did we have?  There was an alternative school with a long waiting list.  That list was weighted toward acceptance of juniors and seniors who needed to credit recovery to be able to graduate. Even if our son could get into the school, how is it helping him to put him in with other kids who are struggling with anger issues, prone to fighting, or drug abusers?  I can’t imagine a worse signal we could have sent our son.

Unfortunately the solution required that my wife quit her job to be home with him. This will be good for him.  We already see positive signs.  Unfortunately, it cut the family income in half.  It cost us the employer-paid health care for my wife.  Putting her back on my school-district, union-negotiated plan would jack up our monthly payments to nearly $1200 a month.  Unreal.  We won’t be able to afford that–not on one income.  (I still can’t believe that this was the best deal a union could negotiate.  Why even bother having a union if people in non-union, non-school district jobs pay a third of what we do?)

I had to take a decision–it was either the achievement gap or my family’s well-being.  The decision wasn’t hard to make.  I chose my family and my child.  I decided to return to my prior career in the relatively high-paying world of information technology.  I knew that I could earn back the difference in what we lost in my wife’s income.

It didn’t take long.  I put newly updated resumes on Monster.com and Careerbuilder’s sites and the calls started coming in.  Today I accepted an offer with an IT firm that was way too appealing to turn down.  I sent the email to my principal and my MTLD and waited for the replies.  I had spoken with each of them several weeks ago about this possibility to prepare them for it.  They took it pretty well.

I will have to pay back some transition assistance money that TFA loaned me at the beginning and I’ll lose the second year Americorps grant money.  That’s not a big deal because the salary at my new position more than makes up that difference.  I probably won’t get invited to TFA alumni gatherings.  I can live with that.

I don’t know that I will mention it to my students, at least not yet.  I will be here through the end of the semester.  I’d like to tell them goodbye, but it might be too upsetting to some of them.  I will miss a few of them.  I have been unable to connect with most of the students this year.  My class sizes are larger.  They have been far more unruly than the students I had last year.  I have not been successful in finding a vision that works for them, at least not one they can engage in.  The bad actors have overwhelmed my ability to get close to the ones who are salvageable.

The sad part is that the most valuable lesson I have to teach them is one I won’t be able to. That lesson is, if you have a good education, you have choices.  When life changes threaten to overwhelm you, an education gives you the ability to shift directions and navigate to a more secure position.  I’ve tried to communicate that to them, but they don’t believe it.

In the end, this is what actually can fix the achievement gap: parents willing to sacrifice comforts and even some necessities to ensure that their children are removed from situations which may doom their child to failure.  We did that.  My wife quit her job and we brought out son home before this offer came along.  We were willing to sacrifice comforts, eating out, vacations, or whatever else might have to go in order to save our son.

If a parent cares more about anything else–personal ambitions, dreams, career, social connections, or possessions than their child, he or she may very well end up sacrificing their child to the gods of selfishness and self-interest.  A parent who is willing to do what it takes to save his her child will eventually succeed because no obstacle or sacrifice is too great.  I am grateful I had a prior career I could go back to, but it wouldn’t have mattered in our decision.  Nothing of a material nature we might have held onto was worth our son’s future.

If you are a parent of a failing child in a failing school, there is very little that the school will ever be able to do to affect your child if he doesn’t know that he is your first priority and that you would literally do anything it takes to help him succeed.  When he knows that, there is nothing that can stop him from succeeding.  If anything else is more important to you, you will lack the power to protect him and influence his future.  But honestly, you need to act to get him out of the failing school.  The longer you leave him, the greater the damage will be.  Act now.  Save your child.  Sell everything and move to a new community.  Start over.  It’s that important.  If it isn’t that important to you, you will fail.

If you are the teacher of achievement-gap school children, don’t personalize the struggle so much.  One of my TFA colleagues earnestly beats himself up every day over his supposed weaknesses.  Unfortunately he never admits his strengths.  If a parent is not willing to make the sacrifice to save their kid’s future, a teacher isn’t likely to make the difference.  Far too many parents are focused on getting the next boyfriend or the next high.  They’re too busy gratifying their own desires and leaving their offspring to fend for themselves.  Home and family are a thousand times more powerful than any single teacher.  Do what you can and send your prayers off to God for the help our students need.

How do we fix the achievement gap?  The prophet Malachi in the Bible, oddly enough, gave us the formula.  He said that, if we don’t succeed in turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers, the world would be stricken with a curse.  That curse is all around us.  We see it in the demise of families, the disconnect between parents and children.  We see it in the broken relationships where children are not connected to anything in the past that cared for their future, and they don’t care for the future because they can’t see themselves taking on the roles of their own parents and grandparents one day.  They are alone on an island of time, absorbed by immediate needs, and ambivalent about what the future holds for them.

That curse can be lifted if we parents turn our hearts to them fully, without reservation.  We must also turn our own hearts to those who went before us and heal families that have been broken by abuse, poverty, and distress.  It will take teachers, but it will also take parents, grandparents, the churches, and other members of the community.

I’ve got at least one more blog post in the works that I’ll put up here before I go.  To anyone who has been one of my readers, thanks for your understanding and support.

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YOTFAO BACTAG = You only teach for America once, but always challenge the achievement gap.

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