Perhaps more than anything else, the school reform movement of the past decade has been about fulfilling the longstanding American dream of universal education. Expressed throughout much of this century by presidents, congresses, and courts, the ideal is that all children have a right to all the education they are capable of. We have made steady progress, but the struggle to keep that promise continues.
Our definition of the pledge has evolved over the years. For a long time, “all children” did not really mean all children. The schoolhouse door, nudged firmly by laws and court rulings, opened slowly to minorities, the poor, non-English speakers, and the handicapped. And though it surely was not intended to be, the concept that children should get “all the education they are capable of” has been a rationale for limiting opportunity, particularly for the disadvantaged, according to some perception—often flawed—of ability.
Today, we have nearly achieved the “universal” part of universal education. Indeed, it is our success in bringing virtually all children into our schools that exposes so painfully how far we have yet to go to fulfill the other half of the promise—the “education” part. Here, too, our definition has evolved: A central concept of the current reform movement is that almost all children have the capability to learn at a high level and deserve the chance to do so.
That includes children who are often very hard to teach—children who are abused, hungry, frightened, angry, and alienated from mainstream America. Such children haunt the pages of a new book, Lives on the Edge: Single Mothers and their Children in the Other America, by Valerie Polakow, a professor at Eastern Michigan University. In an excerpt beginning on page 34, she tells the stories of five “condemned” children. They are representative, Polakow writes, of “countless others who find themselves victims of a continuing educational assault on their young lives.”
Polakow challenges the long-held assumption that the child must “fit” the classroom, arguing instead that the classroom should be made to “fit” the child.
As school reformers have learned to their dismay, that kind of change cannot be mandated, legislated, or regulated. In 1989, Chicago, which has more than its share of “condemned” children, launched one of the nation’s most sweeping efforts to revitalize its failing schools. In the story beginning on page 28, contributing writer David Ruenzel reports on his visit to Walter H. Dyett Middle School to see how that effort is faring in at least one school that is described as exemplary. He came away with more questions than answers and with one overriding conclusion: that we will not have the schools we need, in Chicago or anywhere else in the United States, without “a teacher-driven movement in which teachers reclaim their own classrooms from the tyranny of textbooks and the paradigm of basic skills.”
Kay Toliver, the subject of our cover story beginning on page 22, is at the forefront of such a movement. An outstanding math teacher whose leadership qualities make her an ideal candidate for our Pew Charitable Trusts series on teacher leaders, Toliver is virtually autonomous in her middle school classroom in East Harlem, one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. There are no textbooks in her classroom, Toliver notes proudly, and she works very hard to help her students learn the most basic skill of all: how to think.
Valerie Polakow writes that the classroom can be “a landscape of promise or a landscape of condemnation.” Toliver’s classroom is clearly the former. “You have those who make it and those who don’t,” says Toliver. “But the hope is that all of them will.” And she is dedicated to making that hope a reality.
As Polakow’s book illustrates, not every teacher is a Kay Toliver. “Teachers do not live above their culture,” Polakow writes. “At-risk children are constructed in classrooms that place them at risk for consignment to the other America.” Yes, but how can it be otherwise when teachers have neither the training nor the resources to help these troubled children who bring their heavy burdens and fragile lives into the classroom?
One cannot read this month’s three feature articles without realizing anew the enormous demands we place upon teachers, the staggering responsibility they bear. Like it or not, prepared or not, they are caught in a war that society often seems to be waging against its own children.
A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1984 edition of Education Week as Connections