Neil Heinen: Close the achievement gap child by child

We must focus on the students instead of blaming each other
Neil Heinen: Close the achievement gap child by child
Neil Heinen

By Neil Heinen 

Feel free to read this column last. Maybe you read it last every month, which is fine. But this month in particular, I recommend you read my colleagues’ columns first.

Maybe start with John Roach (again, a lot of you do this anyway). Next perhaps Rebecca Ryan. Then Brennan Nardi’s column. Each offers a unique perspective on a topic we feel so strongly about that we all wrote about it this month—the racial achievement gap in Madison’s public schools.

Brennan and I have talked a lot lately about our desire to have the pages of this magazine recognized as a place where Madison can have a conversation about arguably the most important civic issue of our day—our schools. We need a shared vision for our public school system that brings us together to both support “the system” but also touch the lives of every child in it.

Far and away, my biggest fear right now for the direction of the achievement gap conversation is that it is dividing us and pitting groups of us against each other. Some of us are blaming teachers. Some are blaming the school board. Some are blaming the governor. Worst of all, some of us are blaming African Americans. Black people. We do it in code, or in words we think are well intentioned. We are dishonest. And that, if allowed to continue, will under-mine every single hope and dream this city has for itself. I return your attention to my colleagues’ columns for more on this.

In addition, I worry that for so long we’ve viewed the achievement gap as a combination of systemic influences that together can seem too big to tackle. A conversation about the ability to read involves deep, often immobilizing concerns over poverty, mobility, family stability, teaching methods, physical and mental health, school administration, budgets and more. Those concerns are not without a basis in reality. But together they are overwhelming. How can we possibly deal with so many factors in a bureaucracy like the twenty-first-century public school system?

To its credit, the Schools of Hope project, under the leadership of United Way of Dane County’s Leslie Ann Howard, has focused laser-like on research-based strategies that are proven effective. And Howard’s 2013 goals of increased accountability, resource prioritization and trust building are spot-on. But Schools of Hope has always been perceived by some as addressing the needs of hundreds of kids with hundreds of volunteers and hundreds of hundreds of hours of tutoring, and still too many kids are not achieving to anyone’s satisfaction. In other words, the project can seem daunting in its scope. And it is.

This is a very big issue with profound implications for our city, and Brennan and Rebecca and John and I all acknowledge that and want to help. But I’ve been having conversations with Howard and our mayor, with the Urban League’s Kaleem Caire and Boys and Girls Club’s Michael Johnson, with Jim Kramer from the Simpson Street Free Press and Gary Wolter from MG&E, and the more I talk to them the more my perspective on the achievement gap changes. Each of their approaches reminds me of something I found reassuring. And the other day I realized what that something is.

In her wonderful book on writing and life, Anne Lamott tells a story of her ten-year-old brother absolutely traumatized by the prospect of writing a report on birds that he’d had three months to do. The size of the task simply rendered him unable to start. Lamott says she remembers her father putting an arm around her brother’s shoulder and saying, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

That’s how we’re going to close the achievement gap. Child by child. Let’s focus on a child. Then another. And let’s get this done.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

Find more of his columns for the magazine here.