Our Work, Our Kids

As I’m wont to do over the Christmas break, I caught up on a little reading. One of the books I picked up was the highly informative study by Robert Putnam released last March called Our Kids, a description and analysis of what the economic inequality gap looks like in American families, schools and communities. The basic premise of Putnam’s book—children born in lower socioeconomic strata have a much harder time getting ahead that those born to middle-class families—is not new to me. I’ve spent my career steeped in such research and have tried to explain why schools are, therefore, so essential for poor kids: a quality education represents their best (and, in most cases, only) chance of escaping poverty. Without a good education, children’s road to college and a stable career is filled with nearly unsurmountable roadblocks or, even worse, is simply invisible.

Unfortunately, I’ve also had to describe why and how schools often fail to provide this quality education to those who need it most. A dearth of resources—including learning time, money, and simple human capacity—render schools too weak in combating the enormous deck that is already stacked against poor kids. As Putnam himself argues, schools might have the power to close class gaps by improving individuals’ prospects on a large scale, but, sadly, too often, they do not.

What I took away most from the book, however, was not Putnam’s underlying argument that upward social mobility has become even more unlikely in the last few decades—as persuasive as that case is. Rather, I was struck by his methodology. To frame the subtle erosion of community and family structures that he paints in broad strokes, Putnam skillfully connects stories of real people—well, real people with pseudonyms—to the national statistics. These individuals then serve as microcosmic examples of how, for example, parents help (or fail to help) their children get ahead or how schools can either bolster students’ chances at life success or prove to be not much better than dead ends.

The stories of families and young adults that flow through Our Kids serve as poignant reminders that the data that we researchers like to present as evidence of larger trends are no more and no less than the aggregated experiences of thousands upon thousands of individuals. Likewise, those of us in the business of trying to help educators to harness their resources, creativity and will to better meet student learning needs might sometimes lose sight of those individual shining faces behind all our talk of building systems or analyzing test data or adjusting schedules.

But those faces are, of course, the point. Each child, each child’s opportunity to find a path out of poverty, is made that much brighter when we can find ways to enhance their school experience. As Putnam eloquently argues, reminding ourselves that those kids are, indeed, “our kids” makes the audacious project of improving our nation’s schools all the more personal and immediate. As the newly installed U.S. Secretary of Education John King writes in his New Year’s message, “Our efforts in 2016 must be measured by the progress we make toward educational opportunity for all—so that no child’s fate is left to luck, no student’s destiny defined by circumstances.”