In the United States today, more than 13 million children—nearly one in five—live in poverty. We know that these children face a future in which they are far less likely than other children to get a good education or adequate health care and more likely to enter prison. Under these circumstances, the pull of negative forces is so strong on already fragile families that only a small fraction of exceptional children growing up these communities thrive and are often and justly celebrated. But, the reality is that, most children are not exceptional. Most poor children lack the means to overcome these crushing forces and reach their potential. They grow up poorly prepared to find good jobs with decent wages as adults, and many fall into substance abuse or end up incarcerated which results in perpetuating the viscous cycle of poverty.
Now, we all have seen promises and programs about ending poverty come and go. But, most traditional poverty-fighting approaches are narrowly focused and hampered by a lack of resources. Also, too many programs neglect the neighborhood environment that surrounds the children which has the most profound affect on them. Geoffrey Canada created a new model for fighting poverty that is intended to overcome the limits of traditional approaches. The Harlem Children’s Zone has an intense focus on the social, health, and educational development of children. To support this development the Children’s Zone provides wrap around programs that improve the children’s family and neighborhood environments.
The Harlem Children’s Zone is an amazing and successful project. But, it is not a realistic, nor a good idea to attempt to implement programs like HCZ in every poor neighborhood in America. Instead we must see the Harlem Children’s Zone as an example of how the cycle of poverty can be broken through the reformation of education. Anyone who is familiar with the educational system in the US will not dispute that it has failed, is failing, and unless it is completely overhauled, will continue to fail, especially in poor communities. While there is no national consensus about what should be done, Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone have come up with five steps that can make a difference if implemented.
The first is to reform the bureaucracy. The stagnant bureaucracy that has grown around the country’s schools is getting in the way of student achievement. Managers of schools and school systems can’t organize their staff so they can best benefit students. Often teachers can’t be moved from a successful school to a failing one and lousy teachers or principals can’t be replaced in a timely way.
The second step is to end the public school monopoly. While the goals of the No Child Left Behind law are admirable, in poor communities, there is essentially no choice for parents whose children attend failing schools. Canada compares the reality of giving parents the “freedom” to opt out of their child’s failing schools to telling passengers on the Titanic that they can sit in any deck chair of their choosing.
The third step is to attract and retain more great teachers. Teachers, who have one of the most important jobs in our country, receive significantly less money than peers in other professions. The median starting salary for a teacher in the U.S. is $29,564, while a recent MBA can start his or her career with a salary of $75,000 or more.
The fourth step is to make teaching and learning full-time jobs. It’s clear that we have to pay teachers more, while requiring them to work a full year. Perhaps having schools closed for the entire summer worked fine when we had an agrarian society. But today, in failing schools, we need to extend the school year and the school day. That is the only way poor kids can catch up and eventually have a shot at a job in our increasingly knowledge-based workplace. The simple truth is that no one is going to turn around our failing schools without making teaching in them a full-time job and compensating staff accordingly.
Finally, the fifth and last step is to create incentives for excellent teachers. Right now, a teacher who inspires students can look forward to the same pay raise as the teacher next door who has mentally checked out and is just counting the days to retirement. In fact, great teachers who want to earn more have to leave classrooms entirely for jobs in administration. Our education system needs a structure that fairly rewards great teachers and trains other teachers to improve their classroom skills.
In conclusion, we need to resume the war on poverty, but with a new vision, new goals, and fresh ideas. Canada says that losing the war on poverty is just as dangerous as losing the war on terrorism. He says that the future of our homeland will never be secure if we continue to lose the war on poverty. The need for improving education, particularly in low-income communities, couldn’t be much plainer. We have 12 percent of African-American men in jail on any given day; more than 90 percent of them did not graduate high school. The Community Service Society reports that almost 50 percent of African-American men in New York City are unemployed – clearly this is a direct result of their lack of education. Today the country spends, on average, more than $7,500 per pupil annually to educate our children in public schools, while a top private school can cost more than three times that amount. We do not need to match private schools dollar for dollar, but public schools must do better and that means more money, spent wisely. Think of it this way – We can spend escalating amounts of money on jails, drug treatment and welfare — or we can pay a fraction of that money up front and do the job of educating low-income Americans right the first time.