Let me tell you a tale of two schools.
As the Georgia Teacher of the Year, I visit countless schools all across Georgia—observing instruction and meeting students and teachers.
Recently, I visited a neighborhood school in the heart of a poor area in Atlanta.
It has everything you could want: state-of-the-art facilities that are comfortable and inviting, corporate and university partnerships that help with curriculum and resources and community buy-in where the kids feel supported. And it’s all working because the students are performing at exceptionally high levels, worthy of recognition.
I was impressed, eyes beaming and wide smile until I remembered the other two schools I visited that same week. In those buildings, low performance mirrored their scant resources and hope was declining even faster than their crumbling buildings. There was no crowd in their corner.
I was awakened to the reminder that what the kids at the first school have the opportunity to experience is exactly what other kids want, but don’t have access to. I walked to my car with eyes welled up, biting my lip.
I know both of these stories. Where I grew up was a poor place where, for kids, the future hung over us like a dark cloud instead of a clear sky illuminated by the bright sun. On my block, nobody made it to college and most boys got tied up in trouble.
What rescued me was my mom’s decision to send me to a “high-performing” school across town. I left behind my buddies who, for the most part, reached that “predictable outcome”—unemployment, drugs, crime or all of the above. While I am immensely grateful for my mom’s decision, I have long contemplated the differences in our paths. Just how far apart did our educational experiences diverge?
The difference started on my first day at the new school. I was greeted with, “Congratulations! You’re here! You are at the best school which automatically makes you one of the best.”
I got that coupled with, “You represent the school now. Don’t let us down.”
We soaked it up so much that decades later my classmates and I still maintain that gushing pride.
As a kid, it felt great to be at a school like that and I attribute much of my personal success to that experience. But for 30 years I have balanced it against how much I wished I could bring my neighborhood buddies with me.
Back to the present.
The school I was visiting had that same atmosphere. The school was labeled special and the kids felt special for being there. I heard echoes of my alma mater. No doubt the kids here had received that same message on their first day. As a point, schools justify this as their attempt to build culture and it works like clockwork for the students at said schools. You can recognize an identical approach in schools across the country.
But, like my childhood buddies, what about the kids who don’t get to attend these “chosen” schools?
We straddle a narrow and dangerous line if we rely on convincing a student that their school is special in order to energize their efforts. We must simultaneously remember that, by virtue, exceptional cannot exist without inferior. You cannot be at the better school unless someone somewhere is at the worse school. What happens when that message reaches them?
Let me be clear, I like competition when it pushes us to try harder and perform better. But we should wield that sword carefully. After all, students are rarely, if ever, in control of which school they attend.
And so, through the lens of equity, I propose that we focus our efforts on improving the mindsets and conditions of all of our schools. That way every student can attend a school that they believe is competent (even if not special) and that they can accomplish whatever goals they set, regardless of which place they are assigned to learn.
Let’s keep our eyes on the target: success for every kid, in every school, everywhere in America—and how our messaging creates the environment for hitting this target.