A Collective Call to Action to Ensure EVERY Child Succeeds
When Ivan was 17 years old he sat in the office of his high school principal hoping his older cousin Sharon would come to defend his right for one more chance, one more break from his dismal education experience. It was only a few short weeks before graduation, and the Puerto Rican student living in a poor community in Delaware had just been informed that he would not be graduating because he didn’t meet all of his senior requirements. He would not walk at commencement, and he would have to take summer classes if he wanted to receive a diploma. Ivan was due to report for duty in the U.S. Navy shortly after graduation, so summer school and the lack of a diploma threatened his future in the Navy and his dreams to see the world.
When Sharon walked into the principal’s office, she was surprised. She hadn’t seen much of Ivan since her wedding, when Ivan was nine and had the great distinction of being her ring bearer. The boy she saw in the principal’s office was a physically intimidating figure who—more than six feet tall—looked like a linebacker. But when she searched his brooding eyes as he sat in the corner of that office, she saw a lost boy in a man’s body. Disillusioned and frightened, he seemed to be asking, “How did I get here? Why is this happening to me? Who will be my advocate?”
Many readers of this story understand, or perhaps have even lived, Ivan’s all-too familiar story. According to statistics reported by the U.S. Department of Education, only 41 percent of children in low-income communities are enrolled in preschool, compared with 61 percent of children in wealthier communities. In high school, only 57 percent of black students and two-thirds of Hispanic students have access to the full range of courses necessary to succeed in college and careers, compared to 71 percent of white students. And American Indian and Native-Alaskan students are disproportionately suspended and expelled, representing less than 1 percent of the student population but 2 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 3 percent of expulsions.
The numbers of children like Ivan are growing in schools every day. Teachers often have little or no support in working with children from impoverished and disenfranchised families, immigrant students who speak little or no English on arrival at school, and those whose families may be unfamiliar with the demands of the U.S. education system. These students and teachers together face the demands of rigorous college- and career-ready standards with little preparation or support for implementation. These children are most often also the students that go to schools where districts are scrambling to fill positions because of a teacher shortage. These factors make it more difficult for our most at-risk students to earn a quality education. Now more than ever, we need education systems that are socially and emotionally responsive to all students if we want to provide authentic pathways to success.
According to linguist Lily Wong Fillmore, “The U.S. teaching force is not currently well equipped to help these children, and those who speak vernacular dialects of English, adjust to school and learn joyfully: Too few teachers share or know about their students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds, or understand the challenges inherent in learning to speak and read Academic English. Teachers need this knowledge because most have not had well-designed professional preparation for their current challenges.”
This is why the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future (NCTAF) is leading a collective call to action through its Great Teaching Initiative. The Commission believes that there is a national imperative to ensure fair and equitable access for opportunities to learn for all students and focuses on the conditions that support great teaching and learning. In order to ensure that all students are prepared for success in college, career, and civic life, we need to design educational systems that understand the growing and overwhelming conditions facing millions of teachers and students across the country today. We must prepare for a future of teaching and learning that is dedicated to investing in all students’ success.
On Feb. 19th, NCTAF, in collaboration with the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), welcomed 40 organizations to an intensive conversation about how to make meaningful progress in educational equity. Participants were asked to provide compelling examples of effective research, policy, and practice that have proven to accelerate the implementation of fair and equitable opportunities to effective teaching. The goal of this meeting was to provide the Commission’s report with examples of:
- Conditions that attract and support the most experienced and most capable teachers to high-needs schools;
- Effective programs and practices that provide examples (proof of concepts) to inform the field; and
- Action steps developed collaboratively that will expedite a collective effort to improve equitable access to great teaching.
The Commission’s Great Teaching Initiative is a call to all communities to take action now. For all the Ivans of the world to experience the support they need, our country must get serious about improving the conditions that support great teaching and learning. We must act now or continue to face increasing poverty and even more glutted prisons.
We have solutions. These can be gleaned from across the country where teachers are given the support they need to continuously improve their teaching, serve all students well, and elevate their profession. We need to learn from those districts, schools, and educators that are making a positive impact. If we give teachers time, tools, and autonomy, they will be able to help all of the Ivans prepare for a bright future.
Ivan’s story has a wonderful ending. He had an advocate. He was able to meet the specific goals required for him to walk across that graduation stage, and he entered the Navy. He went on to earn his BA while serving in the Navy and later used his veteran’s benefits to earn his MBA. In May, Ivan will receive his Ph.D.
Ivan is my cousin. He will be the first in his family to earn such an honorable degree. I can’t help thinking, though, about all of his friends and family members who didn’t have an education advocate who knew how to intervene and demand more. It is for them that we work now.