November 09, 2007

President's Perspective: We can't afford not to end the gap

Source: NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi

Last month, I described my pride in escorting Sen. Hillary Clinton into a room of union leaders after the American Federation of Teachers Executive Council endorsed her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president.

iannuzziWell, shortly after that Clinton event, I experienced another proud NYSUT moment when I stood before more than 400 educators, elected officials, researchers, and business and community leaders to kick off "Every Child Counts: A symposium dedicated to ending the gap."

It was exciting and encouraging to see the hall packed with women and men who, by their participation in our remarkable three-day conference, were stepping forward and committing to do their part in defining and carrying out what we need to do to help students succeed.

My welcome to the symposium participants centered - as you might expect - on children. After all, the achievement gap is about children.

I talked a little bit about my three grandsons and how research tells us that these three little boys, because of their environment and opportunities, are likely to be on the "safe side" - as opposed to the "risk side" - of the gap.

When Mark, Ethan and Harrison enter school, they will have had experiences very different from those of three of my former fourth-grade students - Jose, Billy and Tyneisha.

Jose was perhaps one of the brightest students ever to enter my class, but health and psychological issues as a child led to a serious battle with drug addiction and a detour from academics. Billy found his place - the wrong place - in a gang-infested neighborhood. Now in prison, he is likely to spend the rest of his life there.

And then there is Tyneisha.

Tyneisha's story

Tyneisha's is the saddest story of them all. Through the maze of numbers and theories that often define the achievement gap, I'm reminded - haunted, really - by thoughts of this 9-year-old young girl, perhaps the personification of that phrase, "young, gifted and black." She had everything to offer and every hurdle to overcome.

Tyneisha was already struggling when she entered elementary school. She came from a low-income, one-parent extended family living in substandard rental housing.

She started life under the watchful eye of a hard-working, dedicated mother who lost her own battle to illness, no doubt because of the lack of access to quality health care.

Her mom's death came while Tyneisha was still in elementary school and added the burden of greater responsibility for raising her siblings. As a result, there was even less time for her studies.

The next I heard from Tyneisha was years later when she reached out to a former teacher, as she desperately tried to make contact with a social worker I had connected her to in elementary school.

Tyneisha was in an abusive relationship and was seeking help. Tragically, before she could get that help - before her 25th birthday - Tyneisha's life was taken away from her in a cruel and violent manner.

There are many contrasts between my three grandsons and Jose, Billy and Tyneisha: adequate income and resources and all that they provide; access to quality health care; skin color - and all the discrimination it has brought and still brings - are certainly some important ones. But, while no one factor has exclusive claim to the achievement gap, poverty is certainly present most consistently.

Conference focus

Not unexpectedly, that was a constant theme throughout our symposium: housing, nutrition, prenatal care, child care, preschool and early childhood education, access to health care and so many other critical social and economic factors all impact a child's ability to perform in school and contribute to creating, sustaining - and, at times, widening - the achievement gap.

"We can't pretend we're going to compete with other wealthy nations unless we're doing what they do," urban sociologist Pedro Noguera of New York University told conference participants, referring to countries that have been more aggressive than the United States about providing universal health care and quality nutrition programs to low-income populations.

Richard Rothstein, an education researcher, also put the focus on health care accessibility as it relates to the gap.

He suggested that establishing full-service clinics in schools - including medical, dental and optometric care - would ultimately be both more cost-efficient and effective than remedial programs and other education initiatives.

Our friend, Kati Haycock of the Education Trust (which has been at the forefront of the achievement gap discussion) presented some encouraging statistics and sobering realities.

While some point to progress in New York and elsewhere, like other speakers and panelists throughout the conference she stressed that the problem remains and much work still needs to be done.

"We take kids who come to school with less and what do we do? We turn around and give them less in school, too," Kati told us.

(In addition to this special section in this New York Teacher, complete coverage of the "Every Child Counts" symposium can be found at nysut.org.)

Next steps

Yes, "Every Child Counts" was a remarkable gathering that raised tough, often uncomfortable, questions and offered a diversity of views. It also forged new partnerships and highlighted the need for strong, ongoing coalitions in addressing the societal issues, along with the academic issues, that are imbedded in the achievement gap.

My commitment is the same as it was two years ago: ending the achievement gap is a NYSUT priority that will remain central to this union's political and social justice agenda.

As was demonstrated for three days in Albany, the achievement gap isn't about numbers that go up and down and that lead us to charts, graphs and conclusions we often cannot explain.

No, the achievement gap, and all that leads to it, is about children - children like Jose, Billy and Tyneisha - who we simply cannot afford to lose.