The Real Work of Education Reform

This Mother’s Day weekend I thought so much about Samaria Rice, a mother whose mother’s days will never be the same again.  A mother who has had to deal wtih a living nightmare. That which I still cannot bring myself to watch; that which still even as I write makes my eyeballs spontaneously spout and my heart clench.

What were her dreams and hopes for her child? What were her fears for him? I imagine that they are the same as mine for my twelve year old. A life filled with happiness, success, peace. And fears of racist systems getting in the way of genius flourishing.
In his opinion piece, The Real Problem with America’s Inner Cities, in Sunday’s NY Times, Orlando Patterson gives a quick and clear historical thought map to this point: not all inner city black youth are criminals, and more needs to be done to address the needs of the poor and vulnerable.
I agree with the overall recommendations Patterson makes about how to remedy the real problem of the inner cities: increase successful charter school programs, more funding for head-starts, provide pre-natal support, reduce environmental toxicity, increase life-skills and career training to name a few. Yet I would make the following fundamental modification: the goal of all of these well-meaning programs absolutely needs to shift from an incremental betterment of conditions to a dismantling of the social, political and economic institutions and conditions that create the need for the repair in the first place. Unless we decidedly, pointedly and unabashedly repeat in every organizational mission statement and action plan that we are about the business of dismantling institutional racism and systemic poverty, we will only be tinkering around the sidelines of change. We won’t be dealing directly with the complex intersections of the systems that together create a tangled, intentional web of disadvantage which is the big beast. This includes housing, food, transportation, policing, school reform, philanthropy, social services, mental health, health care, etc.
Am I saying that we each need to do it all? Certainly not. Is it mission creep? Certainly not. But we do need to articulate this frame, and we do most certainly need to be methodical. When we punch in every day to do the work in education reform, let’s make sure we are punching the clock for bringing down the big beast, in addition to, or better yet, as the larger context for our own organization’s missions. This perspective on what the work actually is can transform how we work, making us more effective in creating lasting, sustainable, substantive transformation. Not tinkering with a new small school design and leaving poverty intact. Not tinkering with common core aligned curriculum and leaving poverty intact. Not tinkering with college access and leaving poverty intact.
At the end of what is a compelling piece, he slips in that by reducing the number of single mothers we might reduce a number of negative social and economic factors, namely the lure of gang membership for young men and boys.
Now this really burns my toast. If I didn’t know Dr. Patterson’s work a bit beyond this opinion piece, I’d think he was blaming the mothers (blasphemy…on Mother’s Day no less!) of the ~20% of inner city black and brown youth that are disengaged from formal schooling, and potentially engaged in criminal activity for those outcomes. He certainly goes far beyond that and contextualizes in other works, saying that youth of color growing up in poverty with single moms need more parenting time, modeling, positive social engagement, access to social capital. The single mom is often working two (or more) jobs and not earning a living wage, which creates holes in the fabric of the social, economic, and cultural sling in which moms nurture their babies of every age.
My conclusion here, on the contrary to Patterson’s, is not that single motherhood is a problem, but rather that mothers not earning a living wage is a problem. $15/hr should be the federal minimum wage and if we say we are about ed reform, then we have to be about that also. Every employer that works on behalf of kids should examine how they could be impacting the socioeconomic situation of the families they serve by stating a target, a metric by which they hold themselves accountable and determine organizational success that is directly tied to the extent to which they hire, train, develop, sustain parents of the young people they serve, and obviously pay (at the very least) a living wage. By engaging in policy development around hiring, purchasing, contracting, that directly supports the families we serve, we begin to attack the big beast while doing our daily work. Ed focused non-profits, CMOs, and edventures need to be on the hook for economic development of the communities we serve.  Lest we tinker.
When we reframe the real work of education reform in the context of the eradication of poverty, we can more clearly see what is needed. Mothers need jobs that pay right, school systems and well-meaning ed focused non-profits that respect their families and communities, police organizations that do right by the humanity of their children. I, too, will take that instead of a card on Mother’s Day and any day.

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