We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the third and final in a series inspired by the book. Read the first and second posts.
When I was six years old, I was the lowest achieving kid in class. I knew it because our scores were clearly written on the board for all to see. And the one at the bottom, usually me, was given several hits with a bamboo switch.
This was the Chinese education system, and I was an American kid whose only other education experience at the time was half-day kindergarten, complete with nap and recess. After moving to my new school, the injustice I felt a age six was insufferable.
But here’s a twist: I wasn’t the only one who got the switch. The kids who sat near me also got it. To eliminate this achievement gap, the teacher made it the other students’ business to make sure I caught up. We were in it together.
As an adult, I now understand what’s truly unjust is that many children don’t have access to a good education. American elementary school students are also punished for underachievement. If an elementary school returns low standardized test scores, children often have school funding taken away, and some of their teachers fired.
In America—where a child’s ZIP code and skin color are significant factors that determine academic opportunity—it’s a grossly unfair way to be held accountable. It’s also grossly unfair that children are held accountable when CEOs are not, but that’s another story. With these pejorative tactics, there is little hope for lifting achievement, equitably or otherwise.
The achievement limited by those factors—ZIP code, skin color and the layered and complex challenges tangled up in them—isn’t just limited to academics.
My first job after college was managing programs for at-risk girls—from middle schoolers in gang-impacted neighborhoods to teens with incarcerated mothers and those who were incarcerated themselves. It was an up-close and personal look at the way cycles of poverty, abuse, and incarceration play out in real lives.
What really resonated with me from reading this chapter, was the idea that solving problems—teen pregnancy, job preparedness, academic achievement—requires looking far beyond the problem itself. Acknowledging and addressing head-on the complex challenges faced by vulnerable populations, and providing not only the technical skills they might need—like access to contraception and the knowledge of how to use it, for example—but the hope and determination to envision a future where there are other possibilities.
Agreed! This book is about spreading opportunity. Kristoff and WuDunn offer innovative thinking and models that came with statistical evidence. They lay out a clear case that early investments offer the highest returns.
And it’s important to note that there are many individuals and organizations that are working to make meaningful change, particularly when it comes to children and disparities in education and elsewhere. We’re lucky to work with some, like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We count others as our neighbors here in Seattle, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—particularly their work on education pathways in Washington state.
Reading A Path Appears together connected us through stories—the stories in the book and our own. I hope as more people read this book and have substantive conversations, more people realize it’s in everyone’s interest to lift others up. If we don’t, we all hurt.
Photo credit: Don Harder, via Flickr.