Why Students Who Have the Least Deserve More

This post is part of our Learning Moments series, where educators, coaches, and experts share their stories. Read HMH President and CEO Jack Lynch's first post in the series here.

In the spring of 2014, I met Dr. Cedric Magee, principal of Warren Central Junior High in Vicksburg, Mississippi. As we walked the halls, Cedric told me that he began his career as an educator teaching a behavioral modification class consisting of second through sixth grade boys. It was filled with all the students other teachers recommended be placed there because of “behavioral” issues.

Cedric, a 22-year-old freshly minted teacher from Alcorn State in Mississippi, did what any new teacher who didn’t know any better would do when confronted with an entire class of trouble makers—he taught them “step,” a form of dance with complex rhythms that uses the dancer’s entire body as an instrument. Every day, as a reward for their good work in the classroom, he taught them how to dance. Eventually, the students were invited to dance in their school’s auditorium and, ultimately, at a neighboring school. When I asked Cedric how he turned this band of misbehavers into a troupe of dancing scholars, he said, “Children don’t care what you know until you show them how much you care.” This was his superpower. He showed his students how much he cared about them. 

In Cedric’s case, using unconventional methods to engage students and show genuine investment—both in and outside the classroom—helped propel his students forward. However, in many cases, showing students you care is simply not enough to pave the way for future success. Too often, through no fault of their own or their teachers’, students who need the most help are being left behind. 

Dr. Tyrone C. Howard, one of the nation’s leading experts on educational equity, reports that 10 out of 30 (roughly one-third) students in any given classroom in one of our nation’s top 100 districts live in poverty; three out of 30 (or roughly one-tenth) live in extreme poverty. In that same class, one student is experiencing homelessness, and seven students will have suffered trauma and abuse at some point in their lives. 

All children deserve safety, access to quality healthcare and healthy food, and emotional support and love; these basic needs must be met for productive learning. When they are neglected, students will often disengage, miss school, or alternatively, become defiant and disruptive. Many educators, even the most dedicated and talented, often don’t have the resources, tools, or time to make sure struggling students get access to the right academic intervention programs, let alone to ensure that these critical needs, traditionally nurtured outside of the classroom, are also being met.

As a nation, we are not doing enough to give all children what they need to thrive. Historically, we have focused on trying to “level the playing field” by examining resource allocation across schools, aiming to guarantee that all students have a chance to attend schools that offer high-quality, rigorous instruction and top resources. But the notion that this approach will solve all the complex challenges facing our young people, that it will truly lead to an equitable education system, is narrow and shortsighted. 

Excellent schools are critical, but we need to recognize that the students who are the most vulnerable, who have “the least,” deserve more.

They deserve more because research shows that they have 1,000 fewer hours of pre-literacy training (parents reading to their children) than the average student before kindergarten. They deserve more because it is hard to pay attention when you are hungry. More because racial biases prevail. More because their better-off peers grow up in neighborhoods brimming with high expectations, affirmation, and potential, while in poorer communities, this essential conviction that all students can learn and succeed remains faint. Such discrepancies create a literal tale of two cities—one in which children are conditioned to scarcity and failure, while in the other, children are conditioned to abundance and success.

According to the Education Trust, in the U.S. today, school districts serving the largest populations of Black, Latino or American Indian students receive roughly $1,800, or 13 percent, less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color. While 13 percent may not seem like a lot, for a school district with 5,000 students, the gap translates to a shortage of $9 million of funding per year.

With societal obstacles starting from birth and diminished resources and funding at the district level, how can we as businesses and organizations help these students and educators? At HMH, we believe all children can learn, and as the largest K-12 curriculum provider, it is our responsibility—and privilege—to work hard to move the needle when it comes to educational equity. We’re focused on “doing more,” too. More to create space for meaningful dialogue with educators. More to convene thought leaders and practitioners and define actionable pathways for change. More to deliver curricula and services that reflect the diverse communities we serve. At HMH, “doing more” for our students is a fundamental part of our ethos as The Learning Company.

Educational equity is a fluid, unruly movement beginning to find its footing with the promise of lessening the injustice of an unequal education system. It must factor more centrally into our national discourse—not as an issue that we need to cope with or endure, but as an issue that demands change. We must come together across sectors to identify challenges and solutions to close the achievement gap.

Many of us have had teachers and principals like Dr. Magee, people who make us feel different just by being in our presence, who are tough but care deeply about our well-being.  We need to show all students that we care, and we need to ensure that educators have the resources they need to help change students’ narratives about their futures.

Why? Because students who are the most vulnerable, who have “the least,” deserve more.

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