Coffee Break: John Gomperts on Removing Barriers to Student Success and Recommitting to Kids

Do you drink coffee or tea and how do you take it? I drink super-strong decaf with a little bit of half and half. You recently released a report on the barriers faced by young people in poverty caused by adverse experiences. Some people cope with adversity better than others. What is their secret to success and how do we help share it with others? The secret is no secret. Young people coping with adversity need a web of supportive relationships in their lives. Our study, Barriers to Success: Moving Toward a Deeper Understanding of Adversity’s Effects on Adolescents, found that some types of adversity—for example, loss of a parent—and some combinations of adversity are more difficult to overcome than others. But relationships—within and outside of families—can buffer the effects of multiple adversities for youth and their caregivers. The presence of supportive adults in the lives of young people dealing with abuse and family dysfunction, for example, buffer the effect of adversity, leading to a high school graduation rate that’s comparable to the rate for young people without significant adversity in their lives. This week you held a summit called “Recommit to Kids.” As a country, what have we failed to do for kids and what do we need to do? We’ve made a lot of progress for children and youth over the past 20 years, but we’ve failed to make a breakthrough on equity. The child poverty rate in America is the same as it was 20 years ago. And economic and social mobility is increasingly limited: Of those children born to parents in the lowest income bracket, 42 percent remain there as adults. As Robert Putnam says bluntly, “Smart poor kids are less likely to graduate from college now than dumb rich kids.” We need to surround kids, particularly young people growing up in challenging circumstances, with caring adults. We need to provide more support for parents and families. We need to build clear, responsive and connected pathways through education and to the workforce. We need to welcome young people back on track, not push them away, when they need another chance. And we need strong, engaged communities that put young people at the center and share collective responsibility for their success. Some people think that success in education and in life is much more tied to parents than to institutions like schools. No one thinks that schools can or should replace parents but for kids growing up in challenging circumstances, what can schools do better? The importance of parents was a big theme at our summit. Our study, “Barriers to Success,” found that neighborhood support and the presence of a mentor to support youth helped reduce parenting stress. When parents are less stressed, they can do more to help children. Still all children need more than just their parents in their corner. Supporting the growth of children is a job all of us share. School staffs can support kids by inviting community organizations into the school building to provide a variety of social services, including support for physical and mental health. Administrators can make sure school staff and volunteers have the time and skills to build real, trusting relationships with students. They can adopt disciplinary policies that are smart, not punitive and not discriminatory. They can engage young people as peer supporters, and make it harder to leave school and easier to return. Businesses can provide more support and more opportunities for young people to get exposure to and experience with work. I could go on, but suffice it to say, all of us can do more. Last year, America had a record high school graduation rate but some people suggest that the progress only happened because we lowered the bar for a diploma. Is that true and should we have graduation requirements, like the ones just proposed in Chicago? Adults who are graduating young people unprepared for life after high school are cheating those young people. Isolated incidents of cheating shouldn’t obscure the bigger story, which is that thousands of communities are simultaneously raising both standards and graduation rates. In addition to increasing graduation rates, we need to strengthen the connections between K-12 schools, higher education and work. Schools need to do more than graduate students. They need to take responsibility for preparing students for whatever comes next and help students transition to their next step. What’s happening in Chicago is one way to do that. I’d love to see more attention and innovation on other ways to accomplish this. Effective education is one of the five promises at the heart of America’s Promise Alliance. What are the biggest barriers to giving every child in America an effective education? What makes you hopeful? Our Founding Chair General Powell and our current Chair Alma Powell just published a letter to America, which everyone should read. In it, they write, “When it comes to young people, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. We need to summon the will.” We have to ask ourselves, do we really believe that every young person has the capacity to thrive, and are we really committed to doing whatever is necessary to create the conditions of success for every young person, the same way we would for our own kids? I believe the answer is yes, but we have to keep pushing with and for the young people who have the deck stacked against them. We are making significant progress, and that makes me hopeful—and hungry—for more.
Photo by Amy Blankson, AP.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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