Archives For December 2011

Achieving educational opportunity for all: acknowledging the elephant in the room

 Here’s something many of us know but which has gotten lost amidst the discussions and debates over the past several years about how to redress the educational achievement gap: this gap is, at its core, about class inequalities.  Thanks to a clear and concise op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times by Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske, we are reminded of the central reason so many kids are not proficient in math, science, reading, and writing.

Policymakers can talk all they want about fixing “failing schools” by holding them accountable to “higher standards” – as was the case with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and is similarly true with Obama administration rhetoric – but that doesn’t get us very far toward mitigating the problem.

This is why there is a growing consensus among education researchers that perhaps the best way to address the achievement gap is by investing in the many nonprofits across the U.S. which provide high-quality early childhood education to kids whose families can least afford to pay for it.  The significant benefits of making these investments are discussed elsewhere on this blog:

Renewed hopes for change: notes from Boston’s social innovation marketplace

 Like many others, my reaction to the Occupy Movement has been mixed.  While I am impressed by the creative ways it has publicized gross inequalities in our society, I am frustrated by the movement’s lack of an agenda for change. Complaining about problems without identifying solutions – that doesn’t sound very inspiring, or even novel!

Just when I was becoming resigned to seeing the Occupy protesters as just the latest evidence of hopeless idealism, last night I encountered an antidote for my disillusionment – not amidst the outdoor encampment that remains standing in Boston’s Dewey Square but away from the cold across the river in Cambridge.  I attended a reception held by Root Cause to celebrate two groups of local nonprofits.  The first group of five had just completed a year-long process in which Root Cause’s Social Innovation Forum helped them to better define their goals, strengthen their leadership, and improve their messaging.  They were now equipped to build strong relationships with funders and access wider sources of grant support.  The second group of six was just starting this exciting process.  Both groups had been selected from among over 100 applicants.

These 11 nonprofits are not only addressing some of the most challenging problems facing our society but they have the evidence to prove they are succeeding in their efforts.  For example:

  • Future Chefs (discussed in detail elsewhere on this blog) provides youth with mentoring and support as they embark on careers in the culinary arts.
  • MathPower is closing a critical piece of the educational achievement gap – inequality in quantitative reasoning.
  • Innercity Weightlifting encourages urban youth to spend time developing bodybuilding skills for a career in personal training as an alternative to engaging in gang activity.
  • Tempo Young Adult Resource Center provides crucial services to young adults who are aging out of the state foster care system.

As I ate the scrumptious food prepared by Future Chefs and met many of the others in attendance, what resonated with me most is that the “social innovation marketplace” all around me didn’t rest on idealism but pragmatism.  The predominant mood in the room wasn’t anger directed at myriad forms of injustice but determination to support ways of making lasting change.  Here were people coming together to promote feasible, high-impact solutions to complex social problems.  How could one possibly leave this event without a renewed sense of optimism that these problems can indeed be successfully mitigated!

Help in the wake of the economic downturn: A two-front attack

 People struggling in today’s sagging economy need lots and lots of help.  This can essentially take two forms: short-term relief and long-term opportunity creation.  The key issue becomes where this help should come from.  If we momentarily look beyond the political gridlock that seems to envelop us everywhere we turn these days, we can see that the Left and the Right both have good ideas to offer.

Short-term relief – such as housing subsidies, food stamps, and reduced or free school lunches – enable families to get by from day to day as adults look for sufficient employment to make ends meet.  The fact that this much-needed help has traditionally come largely from the government is the reason Charles Blow argues in a recent New York Times column that things will get much worse for low-income people if a republican is elected in 2012.  Armed with anti-government rhetoric, this person would likely make substantial cuts to these relief programs, thereby adding to the burgeoning population of impoverished Americans.  Although federal spending must be reigned in, applying the scalpel to the safety net would be a grave mistake.

But there is still quite a bit of substance in conservatives’ thinking.  They see less government not as an end in itself but as a way to promote more efficient problem solving by the private sector.  Those who give to charity are, as George H.W. Bush famously echoed during his presidency, a “thousand points of light” that brightly radiate ways that private individuals go to great lengths to fix problems.  However, there is simply no way charity can replace, dollar for dollar, the massive amounts of much-needed relief provided by the government.  Still, giving is a terrific way to support long-term efforts to expand opportunity.  Here is where the philanthropists we often hear about – the ones who contribute millions of dollars to mitigate problems like disease or unemployment – serve as exemplars for us all to emulate.  Indeed, the rest of this blog chronicles some of the many successes that can be achieved when people invest in opportunity.

Those suffering from the economic downturn, therefore, need help that reflects some of the best thinking on both the Left and the Right – a blend of government-supported relief and privately funded opportunity creation.