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President Acknowledges Poor - Must Our Students Always Be Among Them?

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President Acknowledges Poor - Must Our Students Always Be Among Them?

Chris Schneck

“The things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable,” President Obama says. “But you can move things forward. And sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant.”

The President recognizes that his timetable may not be the same as the nation he governs. The maturation, fermentation, and distillation of ideas in this country take time. And, when those ideas attempt to resolve racial tensions, even more time is needed. If that is the case, why does society insist on grading students and evaluating teachers every May? Why do curriculum revisions come and go with political election cycles? Why do school districts continue to promote principals who care more about career advancement than student achievement?

If President Obama respects the gravitational pull of the status quo and the begrudging relationship the country has to change, why hasn’t his more tempered attitude trickled down to federal and state Departments of Education? Why haven’t we been able to speak more honestly about the state of education in this county, about how far we have to go, and how much time it will actually take?  

Last week, President Obama spoke at a poverty summit at Georgetown University. The conversation sparked a nice New Yorker response. In his opening remarks, he quoted a Biblical adage, “The poor will always be with us.” His ensuring rhetoric insists that he remains hopeful, but his preceding seven years in the White House indicate the opposite: Obama cannot do much to elevate the poor to the middle class.

If the President of the United States has resigned himself to the doctrine of Moses, how are those who teach the poorest children supposed to part the sea of poverty and ignite the light of learning under the Creed of Common Core?

Obama may have had a romantic vision of a post-partisan era, in which there are no red states or blue states, only the United States, but he was elected by the blue states and the red states voted for the other guy, twice.

We know now that his post-partisan vision was, in practical terms, a fantasy. The Republicans - - on morning television shows and on the hill - - peppered Obama with a relentless fury of reminders that the spirit of national conciliation that brought the Democratic National Convention to delirium in 2004 did not exist outside of that physical space.  In 2015, Obama knows that he will not be able to lead the electorate out of the partisan wilderness. “My speech in Boston was an aspirational speech,” Obama said. “It was not a description of our politics. It was a description of what I saw in the American people.”

It seems that teachers, and advocates for educational equity, face a similar challenge to the one that troubles Obama: they have incredible and transcendent aspirations, but exist in schools hamstrung by less ascendant realities.

Teachers see the incredible potential in every student. In the poorest schools, though, teachers must look harder to locate and cultivate that potential. These teachers must instruct and encourage, but they also have to tend to psychological scars engendered by a childhood lived in poverty. The potential of the poorest students, however, will lie dormant until adults speak honestly about just how difficult a job that is and honest about how long it may take.

And, unfortunately, those conversations are not taking place. In schools, we gravitate to buzz words not difficult topics.

Teaching is an incremental job. On my saddest and most frustrating days in the classroom, veteran teachers would tell me that, “the teacher arrives when the student is ready.” Even the best and most experienced teachers acknowledge the limitations of teachers who instruct in poor communities.

This isn’t a cynical euphemism to imply that teachers can’t help unmotivated kids. Rather, teachers repeat this proverb with a hopeful timber in their voices. The implication is clear: If I do my job, and the teacher next door to me does her job, and every teacher does his or her job with professionalism and inspiration and diligence, then eventually every student will be ready for the proverbial teacher one day in the future.

Obama alleges that The Poor will always be among us, but teachers come to work every day because we believe our students don’t have to be among them.

The fact remains, however, that our students will remain destined for the same poverty of their parents until the collective consciousness around education adopts Obama’s willingness to acknowledge the severity of the upcoming tasks and the nuanced nature of systematic inequality in this country.