My first job out of college was as an academic researcher at one of the largest juvenile detention centers in the country. And every day I would drive to this building on the West Side of Chicago, go through the security checkpoint and walk down these brown, brick hallways as I made my way down to the basement to observe the intake process.
The kids coming in were about 10 to 16 years old, usually always black and brown, most likely from the same impoverished South and West Sides of Chicago. They should've been in fifth to tenth grade, but instead they were here for weeks on end awaiting trial for various crimes. Some of them came back to the facility 14 times before their 15th birthday. And as I sat there on the other side of the glass from them, idealistic with a college degree, I wondered to myself: Why didn't schools do something more to prevent this from happening?
It's been about 10 years since then, and I still think about how some kids get tracked towards college and others towards detention, but I no longer think about schools' abilities to solve these things. You see, I've learned that so much of this problem is systemic that often our school system perpetuates the social divide. It makes worse what it's supposed to fix. That's as crazy or controversial as saying that our health care system isn't preventative but somehow profits off of keeping us sick ... oops.
I truly do believe though that kids can achieve great things despite the odds against them, and in fact, my own research shows that. But if we're serious about helping more kids from across the board to achieve and make it in this world, we're going to have to realize that our gaps in student outcomes are not so much about achievement as much as they are about opportunity.
A 2019 EdBuild report showed that majority-white districts receive about 23 billion dollars more in annual funding than nonwhite districts, even though they serve about the same number of students. Lower resource schools are dealing with lower quality equipment, obsolete technology and paying teachers way less. Here in New York, those are also the schools most likely to serve the one in 10 elementary school students who will most likely have to sleep in a homeless shelter tonight.
The student, parent and teacher are dealing with a lot. Sometimes places are misplacing the blame back on them. In Atlanta, we saw that teachers felt desperate enough to have to help their students cheat on standardized tests that would impact their funding. Eight of them went to jail for that in 2015 with some sentences as high as 20 years, which is more than what many states give for second-degree murder.
The thing is though, in places like Tulsa, teachers' pay has been so bad that these people have had to go to food pantries or soup kitchens just to feed themselves. The same system will criminalize a parent who will use a relative's address to send their child to a better school, but for who knows how long authorities have turned a blind eye to those who can bribe their way onto the most elite and beautiful college campuses.
And a lot of this feels pretty heavy to be saying — and maybe to be hearing — and since there's nothing quite like economics talk to lighten the mood — that's right, right? Let me tell you about some of the costs when we fail to tap into our students' potential. A McKinsey study showed that if in 1998 we could've closed our long-standing student achievement gaps between students of different ethnic backgrounds or students of different income levels, by 2008, our GDP — our untapped economic gains — could have gone up by more than 500 billion dollars. Those same gaps in 2008, between our students here in the US and those across the world, may have deprived our economy of up to 2.3 trillion dollars of economic output.
But beyond economics, numbers and figures, I think there's a simpler reason that this matters, a simpler reason for fixing our system. It's that in a true democracy, like the one we pride ourselves on having — and sometimes rightfully so — a child's future should not be predetermined by the circumstances of their birth. A public education system should not create a wider bottom and more narrow top. Some of us can sometimes think that these things aren't that close to home, but they are if we broaden our view, because a leaky faucet in our kitchen, broken radiator in our hallway, those parts of the house that we always say we're going to get to next week, they're devaluing our whole property.
Instead of constantly looking away to solutions like privatization or the charter school movement to solve our problems, why don't we take a deeper look at public education, try to take more pride in it and maybe use it to solve some of our social problems. Why don't we try to reclaim the promise of public education and remember that it's our greatest collective responsibility?
Luckily some of our communities are doing just that. The huge teacher strikes in the spring of 2019 in Denver and LA — they were successful because of community support for things like smaller class sizes and getting things into schools like more counselors in addition to teacher pay. And sometimes for the student, innovation is just daring to implement common sense.
In Baltimore a few years ago, they enacted a free breakfast and lunch program, taking away the stigma of poverty and hunger for some students but increasing achievement in attendance for many others.
And in Memphis, the university is recruiting local, passionate high school students and giving them scholarships to go teach in the inner city without the burden of college debt.
And north of here in The Bronx, I recently researched these partnerships being built between high schools, community colleges and local businesses who are creating internships in finance, health care and technology for students without "silver spoon" connections to gain important skills and contribute to the communities that they come from.
So today I don't necessarily have the same questions about education that I did when I was an idealistic, perhaps naïve college grad working in a detention center basement. It's not: Can schools save more of our students? Because I think we have the answer to that — and it's yes they can, if we save our schools first. We can start by caring about the education of other people's children ... And I'm saying that as someone who doesn't have kids yet but wants to worry a little bit less about the future when I do.
Cultivating as much talent as possible, getting as many girls as we can from all over into science and engineering, as many boys as we can into teaching — those are investments for our future. Our students are like our most valuable resource, and when you put it that way, our teachers are like our modern-day diamond and gold miners, hoping to help make them shine. Let's contribute our voices, our votes and our support to giving them the resources that they will need not just to survive but hopefully thrive, allowing all of us to do so as well.
(Applause and cheers)