At least once over the last few years, most of us have probably heard about or personally felt the need for the internal renovation of America’s public schools. The inequalities that persist in the country’s public school system propagate entrenched socioeconomic disparities and compound complications for society at large. I believe that a quality K-12 education and access to strong post-secondary options serve as great equalizers for students of different backgrounds and lead to stable economic conditions in the long run. Unfortunately, in some of America’s most resource-deprived areas, quality and access in neighborhood schools are foreign concepts to students. Having graduated from a low-income and predominantly African-American high school, this is not new to me. My experiences growing up encouraged me to get involved in whatever way possible to strengthen America’s schools.
While most of the high schools in my district were majority White or racially diverse, my zoned high school was predominantly Black. Even in the largest district in the state, with much of the curriculum standardized across all schools, structural inequalities emerged between my high school and the two that bounded it to the North. My school was less likely to have a highly certified teacher or one with greater than five years of teaching experience, while the two high-flyer high schools nearby boasted a majority of teachers with an average of more than ten years of experience.
The large number of new teachers coming in and experienced teachers transferring out every year reinforced the already pervasive stigma that my school was inferior and not a place where teachers were excited to work. The system seemed to cater so effectively to the desires of adults–if you wanted to teach at a flagship school, you could leave the needy school; if you wanted to be paid more to teach in the gifted classrooms, you could leave the needy classrooms–but I always wondered about my classmates who were left behind. The current system compels the best teachers to teach the most highly achieving students in the most advantaged schools. That was one of the greatest shortcomings I saw in the status quo. I wanted the best teachers to have incentives to work in the environments where they were needed most, those that were previously the least conducive to academic achievement. That brought me to explore opportunities to making education work more effectively to meet the needs of all children. When I found out that Michelle Rhee was starting an organization designed specifically to address the interest of children in education policy decisions in districts and states, I knew it was a place where I wanted to be.
As a summer associate at Students First, I worked on the Mobilization Team to develop strategies to attract new members and get existing members more involved in our campaigns. I had the opportunity to travel with Michelle Rhee and Students First staff to cover the signing of the education reform bills in Michigan and to launch a partnership with Better Education 4 Kids in Elizabeth, New Jersey. While using social media to publicize events and speaking to community members in person and in small crowds, I realized the urgent need for improvements in educational opportunities in communities other than just my own. I finally came to understand the impact of these grassroots efforts, even while at an age when I was unsure I could make a positive contribution. Working at Students First was evidence for me that even students can make a lasting impact in a national non-profit organization and in ensuring that all children have a right to quality education.
Fortunately, for millions of students in this country, reform-minded agendas and organizations are gaining a lot of national attention. Still, too much time passes while we wait for other people to try to improve our education system, and a lot of aspiring social entrepreneurs and change agents are beginning to understand that. As students not too far removed from our experiences in primary and secondary school, we are in a unique position. Our perspectives can be incredibly useful in making policy decisions, developing best practices in the classroom, and understanding and relating to younger students. As Harvard students search for roles in which to make a large impact, we should consider opportunities in teaching, education consulting, policy research, political advocacy, and mentorship. For the sake of children across the nation, we must be both diverse and integrated in our approach to making America’s public schools as excellent as possible.
Everton L. Blair ‘13 is an applied mathematics concentrator in Currier House. He has served as President of the Black Students Association and is a member of Students For Education Reform.