What Message Do We Want Our Children to Hear?

By Deborah Delisle, Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S. Department of Education Jun 27, 2013

After 38 years in education, my heart is still connected to the classroom. It remains with kids that need the best from their communities every single day if we are to provide them opportunities to strengthen their learning progressions and offer them hope for a bright future.

Yet, when I think about our most vulnerable youth, and the schools they attend, I’m reminded that the “best” each child receives, not to mention the future that lies ahead of them, is still too largely determined by their ZIP codes, their family incomes, their languages, and the color of their skin. 

This is particularly true when it comes to the distribution of skilled teachers and leaders. A 2011 Institute of Education Sciences (IES) study showed that students from the highest poverty schools are two times less likely to have a high performing language arts teacher than students in the lowest poverty schools. In one district, students from the highest poverty schools were 10 times less likely to have a high performing math teacher than students in the lowest poverty schools.

The realities of education quality for youth of color are equally heartbreaking. Sadly, students in schools serving mostly black students (over 50 percent) are more than twice as likely to be taught by teachers teaching out of field as compared to their peers in high schools where the majority of students are white.

I am a firm believer that what we offer to our students tells them what it is we value. These numbers not only reflect a persistent opportunity gap – where our most vulnerable receive the least support, but they also send a clear message to our most vulnerable children that other students’ opportunities are more valued. Simply stated, this is wrong.

What message do we want our children to hear?

President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and I believe that every student should have access to a world class education. This means that every child must have access to effective teachers and leaders who can provide the rigorous curriculum, personalized learning environments, and strong support systems so that all students graduate college- and career-ready.  

A world class education for every child, in every community, also requires access to educators who create safe and supportive learning environments for students who experience physical, emotional, and behavioral needs. If we are to send the message that every child matters, and every child’s future matters, then teachers must have the training and skills to serve communities struggling with persistent poverty, violence, and trauma, while keeping students engaged and in school. Leaders must have the wherewithal to develop strong community partnerships to ensure that these factors do not become barriers to academic success and a bright future.

While I recognize that this is no easy task, it is a goal within reach and worth our focus and energy and we must capitalize upon best practices to show us the way. Such exemplars defy the odds and we must embrace the pathways that they create every day. In one district that IES studied, students from the highest poverty schools were almost three times more likely to get a high performing elementary teacher than students in the lowest poverty schools. Such success yields great promise.

I am pleased to work with the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders to provide you this forum, dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, innovations, and achievements that will help further equal access to effective teachers and leaders for all students. Our students are depending upon us to learn, to advocate, to lead, and to make the best decisions that significantly impact their learning trajectories.

Please bring your questions, your stories, and your expertise – your post may help an educator, a school, or even a community to take one step closer to eliminating opportunity gaps.

You have my deepest gratitude for your dedication to our nation’s youth, and for sending clear messages through this forum, that every child matters.  

From the editors:

If actions speak louder than words, what actions will show that we are serious about eliminating the opportunity gap and providing support where it’s most needed?

Experienced teachers, what advice would you give policymakers to help you and your colleagues eliminate opportunity gaps? And school building leaders, your advice?

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