The Path Forward Through Education

Co-authored by Vicki Phillips

For generations of families, education has been the path out of poverty. A new study released by the Children’s Defense Fund, The State of America’s Children 2014, shows just how urgently we need to level the playing field for all children to reach their God-given potential. Nearly 1.2 million public school students were homeless two years ago, 73 percent more than before the recession. This is only one indicator of many in the report that show the rapid rise in child poverty. Children of color are disproportionately poor, and Black children were the poorest. In six states -- Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon and Wisconsin -- half or more Black children were poor and nearly half the states had Black child poverty rates of 40 percent or more. This rapid increase has not seen a rapid response in our public schools. Children have only one childhood. We do not have a moment to waste or another generation to lose. We all know the old saying “it takes a village to raise a child.” Whether we live today in a big city, suburban neighborhood, small town or rural area, it is still true that all children need a village of supporters to help them learn and grow, and that is especially true for poor children.

In schools across America we have a lot to be proud of. We are making progress: student achievement is up, dropout rates are down and achievement gaps between racial groups are narrowing. But these improvements are not big enough, widespread enough or fast enough for us to be content. As CDF’s new report shows nearly 60 percent of all fourth and eighth grade public school students and more than 80 percent of black and almost 75 percent of Hispanic children in these grades could not read or compute at grade level last year. Achievement gaps between poor students and those from wealthy families continue to grow. We must prepare right now our most vulnerable children -- especially those from poor families -- for success in high school and beyond.

Many of the 16.1 million poor children -- more than half of whom live in extreme poverty -- enter kindergarten behind other children socially and academically, attend low-quality schools, miss many days and fall further behind. They are more likely to be suspended or expelled, and more likely to drop out discouraged and unsuccessful.  

All children deserve the chance to follow their dreams. For the vast majority of high school students in the U.S. that dream includes a college degree and a good-paying job. The current reality is most of our children don’t graduate from high school with the skills necessary to succeed in college or in careers.

The path forward requires a wide range of partners to get every child ready for school, and to build a better public education system that gives each child the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in college and in life. We must work together to address longstanding obstacles to learning—including poverty and its multiple effects: hunger, ill health, homelessness, family stress and community violence. It is so important to foster high expectations for every child and provide teachers and students the skills, tools, goals and supports to help children meet the high bar for success in today’s world.

The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is partnering with AASA, the School Superintendents Association, to link uninsured children with health coverage through schools. And CDF’s summer and after-school Freedom Schools provide nutritious meals and snacks, get children excited about reading, help make up for summer learning loss and engage parents in their children’s learning.

We owe a village of solutions to our children, in which multiple child needs are addressed with multiple solutions. Children don’t come in pieces and need a comprehensive continuum of care inside schools and outside schools. Children thrive with high expectations, effective teachers and safe places to live and to learn. 

Across the country, we see promising examples of innovative, holistic solutions taking root, like those under way in Shelby County, Tennessee. Each morning every child receives a healthy and nutritious breakfast snack in the classroom free of charge to ensure that all children get a solid start to their day. The district also serves free supper to every student involved in sports or other after-school programs. And the district is implementing a teacher feedback and evaluation system that provides teachers tailored information about their classroom practice so they know exactly where they need additional support and where they’ve mastered a teaching technique. This has the potential to seriously drive results in the classroom for children.

When it comes to the in-school environment, two decades of research have consistently told us that teachers matter more to student learning than any other factor. This is why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations focus on empowering and supporting teachers to prepare every child for success in career and in life. CDF’s Freedom Schools are also promoting student engagement strategies that help to effectively reach reluctant learners, strategies CDF is beginning to move into public schools.

To be most effective, organizations like ours must come together in multiple ways to rapidly respond to the urgent needs of public school students from poor families across America. We must all support quality teachers and principals, empower parents to support their children at home and in school, strengthen parent-teacher partnerships and establish schools that respect, value and welcome every child,

Together, we can help every child have a chance to achieve their dreams.

Vicki Phillips is director of education, College Ready in the United States Program, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund.