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It's a Big Task, but Schools Have the Job of Improving Kids' Opportunities for Success

There is one public institution that has providing children with equal opportunities as its primary goal, and that is our schools. That is a heavy burden indeed, given that policy choices have undermined their ability to live up to the job.
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An unlovely picture of the nation has emerged from a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which analyzed children's chances to succeed in life by state and ethnicity, looking at health and education measures. On average, the report said, the kids with the worst life chances are American Indian kids from South Dakota -- but not far behind are African-American kids from Wisconsin and Mississippi.

The report demonstrates the tremendous distance between where we are and the ideal many Americans cherish of a nation that affords every child an equal opportunity to succeed.

Right now we have only one public institution that has providing children with equal opportunities as its primary goal, and that is our schools. That is a heavy burden indeed, given that policy choices about housing, health and school financing -- among others -- have undermined the ability of schools to live up to the job we ask of them. That is why so many educators have called on other institutions to step up to the plate. One exciting trend is more community schools, where what are called wrap-around services are provided to children and their families -- dental services, medical check-ups, counseling and help with housing.

But even if all the other systems worked better, schools themselves still have a ways to go before they operate on all cylinders to help the children attending them. A key reason is the way they have traditionally been organized; with individual teachers working in isolation behind closed doors. With the exception of the rare superteacher, it is virtually impossible for anyone on her own to know everything necessary to help all her students learn everything they need to learn, but historically schools have expected teachers to do just that without the help and expertise of colleagues. Imagine if we still had individual country doctors who were expected to do everything from ophthalmologic surgery to chemotherapy. The best doctor in the world would still have a significant failure rate.

The unexpected schools I have written about have all developed systems that both permit and require educators to collaborate to ensure that all children meet standards. Those systems of collaboration and shared leadership have allowed even high-poverty schools to attain extraordinary results that far exceed those of other schools.

But some of those unexpected schools have themselves been undermined by the traditional way school districts are organized. In some ways mirroring the way schools are organized, districts often require compliance but fail to provide systems that support collaboration and the sharing of expertise toward the goal of helping all students succeed.

I have found myself wondering what kinds of system high-functioning districts might put in place to help all their schools be successful.

If you've been wondering that too, I invite you to explore the question with me when I travel to Mississippi -- the state of abysmal life chances for African-American children -- to talk with the leaders of a district that graduates 85 percent of its African-American and low-income students (far above the state average) and sends most of them off to some kind of postsecondary experience -- two-year colleges, four-year colleges, technical schools or the military.

The students in Pass Christian -- white, black, Asian and Hispanic -- seem to enjoy a better chance to determine their future by virtue of going to school there rather than elsewhere in Mississippi. The question is, is there something the school district is doing to make that so? And if so, do they have something to teach the rest of us?

Stay tuned.