A recent post by Kevin Carey at The Quick and the Ed highlights one of the essential dilemmas faced by those of us who are working desperately to improve students’ academic and life success: there is a pervasive attitude in K-12 organizations that outputs are dependent on inputs. You routinely hear comments from educators such as "You can’t expect us to do any better than we already are with these kids" or "The reason that [school / district] is doing better than we are is because they serve those kids."

"We believe that we have no meaningful impact on the children that we serve. We are hostage to our demographics. Whatever comes in the door is essentially what’s going to go out at the other end." Those are chilling words to hear, both as an educational leader and as a citizen of the most affluent and powerful nation in the world.

Despite the ritualistic mantra of educators that "all children can learn," there are large numbers of teachers and principals who don’t truly believe it. If they did, they would act in ways much differently than they do now.

Luckily we have (increasingly numerous) examples of schools where this belief has been challenged at its very core, where educators have come together and said "Collectively we can make a difference!" These schools are finding ways to make it happen, despite their challenging demographics. It starts with a belief that it can be done. As Dr. Douglas Reeves notes in The Learning Leader:

Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia has the following demographic characteristics:

  • 80 percent of students receive free or reduced-priced lunch
  • 68 percent minority student enrollment
  • 40+ languages

Between 1998 and 2005 not a single child in the school system, to the best of my knowledge, has changed his or her ethnic identity. Not a single child has won the lottery. Few if any children have adopted different languages at home. In other words, this story is not about changes in children or their families, nor is it a story about changes in demographic characteristics. This is a story about changes in teaching, leadership, and learning. While demographic characteristics remained the same, student achievement rose dramatically.

In 1998, only 11 percent of the elementary schools in Norfolk contained more than 50 percent of students who scored proficient or higher on the state’s English/Language Arts assessments. In 2004, 84 percent of the elementary schools achieved that distinction, and in 2005, 100 percent of the elementary schools in the district were fully accredited. They not only had 50 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards in English / Language Arts, but these students also met state requirements in math, science, writing, and social studies. In 1998, none of the middle schools in this district had more than 50 percent of students meeting state English / Language Arts requirements, and six years later all the middle schools met this requirement. In addition, the district more than tripled the number of middle school students taking advanced math courses in middle school. In 1998, only one out of six high schools had more than 80 percent of students passing state English graduation requirements, and six years later every high school in the system achieved this distinction. Moreover, some high schools had more than 90 percent of students passing external exams in chemistry and biology, while the dropout rate remained an astonishingly low 0.5 percent for the district – one of the lowest high school dropout rates of any urban system in the nation. The students didn’t change. They were still ethnically, linguistically, and economically diverse. But something profound did change – the commitment of the leaders and teachers in this district to make a difference in the lives of students.

Yes, we absolutely need to be sensitive to overall contexts and larger societal issues. I, too, am concerned about the increasing gaps between the top and bottom income brackets of our society. I, too, am gravely worried that our political and educational policies may be causing increasing harm to our most disadvantaged populations. We must seek to understand the complex contexts in which our students live and we must fight and advocate and cooperate until progress is made. But we must never, ever give up, even mentally. For then the battle, and all hope, is lost.