Hope is critical for success

Susie Kaeser

In 1976, by a fluke, my career as a city planner was redirected to focus on the needs of students who did not succeed in our public schools. I became a child advocate. For a decade, I gathered, analyzed and published data that showed the extent to which Ohio public schools failed with these students. I used the data to identify school districts with problems.

It took me a long time to recognize that shaming people with data would not generate solutions.

When my focus turned to finding remedies, I finally found useful and inspiring information. I talked with educators across Ohio who turned around failing students. Despite their successes, they also had broken hearts and deep frustration. Success was never universal and often transitory. It could disappear at any moment when the conditions of life got in the way.

These remarkable people were committed, creative and willing to bend the rules. They believed in their kids, demanded a lot, and encouraged and supported them to own their lives and overcome barriers. A key ingredient of their success was high expectations for students and themselves.

In a recent meeting focused on engaging parents as partners in student achievement, the issue of expectations slipped into the conversation. In response I thought, yes, how do we make sure teachers have high expectations for students? I was taken aback when a parent advocate in the room said, “Many parents have low expectations for their children.”

I am so school-centric and conditioned to think of the teacher as the relevant actor that I had to be reminded that parents matter too, as do students, community values and opportunity. What parents communicate to their children about their worth and potential, about prospects for their lives and about the importance of school, as well as the example parents set with their own lives, help shape motivation and engagement. Parental expectations affect what children do in school.

We focus on schools because they are publicly funded and governed—and accountable—but it isn’t fair to hold them accountable for results that they alone do not control. If we want more children to flourish, solutions need to include forces that aren’t regulated: parents, children and opportunity. This is not about blame. It simply recognizes that if children are to engage in school in ways that are most rewarding, then many non-school factors must be part of the solution.

As much as I am a true believer in the power of education to change lives, the capacity of every child to learn, and the sanctity of the universal commitment offered by public education, getting better results for a lot more children will depend on more than schools. We need a much more robust effort to mobilize resources and change conditions beyond the school to achieve this end.

There are steep barriers to this approach. First, as long as public policy encourages privatization, parents will be encouraged to choose what is best for them rather than create what is good for everyone. Choice encourages segregation and weakens the fabric created when people work together for the common good. Choice takes resources away from public schools, undermines civic responsibility and makes it more difficult for everyone to succeed.

Second, as long as our economy excludes large numbers of people, it extinguishes hope for a brighter future for children. Without hope, it is hard for parents to embrace and communicate high expectations—why would they set their children up to be left out? Nationally, 55 percent of children who attend public school are living in poverty. This reality affects too many children and creates barriers that should not go unattended.

My ancestors have gone to college since the 19th century. My grandfather and his five siblings were part of a prosperous farm family that became the first college-going generation. Education opened doors for their lives, which supported the family tradition of attending college. Because of this cycle of opportunity, I grew up with the expectation of and tools for success in school.

There are plenty of people who have been left out of this opportunity cycle. The challenge is to interrupt the negative effects of exclusion and its byproducts: lost hope, constrained expectations and limited resources.

If we are serious about leaving no child behind, we need to build a cycle of hope based on real opportunity.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 8, Issue 1, Posted 11:57 AM, 01.05.2015