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January 12, 2007

Teach for America founder discusses education inequalities

School reformers discussed disparities in the American educational system in a panel discussion entitled “Unequal Education” on Thursday, focusing their talk on improving schooling for children of low-income families.

Panel members included Wendy Kopp, founder and president of Teach For America; Dr. Timothy Knowles, executive director of the Center for Urban School Improvement; and Dr. Charles Payne, professor of sociology at Duke University.

Moderator Marvin Hoffman, associate director of the Urban Teacher Education Program, opened the discussion by highlighting the educational inequalities in Chicago. According to Hoffman, only 39 percent of African-American boys graduate from high school in Chicago; only about 2.5 percent finish four-year college degrees.

Payne spoke about the fundamental impediments to improving education for low-income children. “I am absolutely convinced that the major obstacle to improving the urban school system is the beliefs of the adults in those systems,” he said.

He explained that urban teachers and administrators, accustomed to under-achievement, come to expect failure from their students. “These belief systems overwhelm any structural changes we make,” Payne said.

Ideological and political factors further exacerbate the issue, Payne said. “At the highest and lowest levels of this debate, the way people choose policy prescriptions are guided largely by preexisting political dispositions,” he said.

“It’s not clear in whose interest it is for poor children to learn in large numbers,” he added.

Knowles described the current educational system as “beyond broken.” He pointed to the need for qualified teachers in low-income areas, which rapidly lose skilled and experienced instructors. “We need to prepare people to do this incredibly difficult work, and to prepare them to do it well,” he said.

Knowles also spoke of the school environment itself as an obstacle to better education. Fifty percent of urban teachers leave their schools after three years of teaching, he said. Lack of teacher resources and rewards contribute to the problem. Until conditions change, Knowles said, “we will be after this problem of equity for a long time.”

Kopp spoke about federal education legislation. The No Child Left Behind legislation improved public dialogue about educational inequality, she said.

However, she also added that “systems for accountability and measurement” are also necessary. “And one federal mandate does not create those systems. We have to build that capacity at the local level,” Kopp said.

Yet Kopp remained optimistic about the possibility of improvement. “This is not an intractable problem. We can solve it if we make the right choices as a society,” she said.

Knowles agreed that success was possible. But he observed that improvement has generally occurred on a small level. “The issue is that there are no examples really, with the exception of a few developing networks, where success is happening at scale,” he said.

The panelists differed in opinion regarding possible ways to achieve success on a larger level.

“Why haven’t we scaled? Honestly, because this is incredibly hard work,” Kopp said.

“We need an infusion of talent and resources,” she added.

Knowles emphasized that technical expertise, in addition to hard work, is crucial. “I don’t think we have yet fully embraced this idea,” he said, adding that effective teaching methods are critical to closing the education gap.

“We have got to get people off the notion that resources don’t matter for the poor, and the related idea that the poor are fundamentally morally different from us,” Payne said.

The event was sponsored by Teach For America and the University of Chicago Neighborhood Schools Program.