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America's Education Problems Way Deeper Than 'Good' or 'Bad' Teachers

Educational disparities may be getting worse, not better, yet the heated debate over school reform has paid little attention to the hard realities families and teachers face.

Last year in East LA, Jose Pedraza was struggling mightily in his classes and drifting listlessly through his days. It was worrying enough to his teachers at Oscar De La Hoya Animo Charter School, where he was then a junior, that the principal called his mother Pascuala Jaramillo and asked for an urgent meeting.

Jaramillo, a seasoned education activist who had organized other parents and made it a point to get to know her kids’ teachers, grabbed what she calls her “bible” and ran straight to the school. It’s actually not a holy book, but rather a binder of her kids’ education documents and information about her own parental rights—“everything I need to defend myself,” she explains. Her years of organizing other parents taught her that teachers and administrators are often too burdened by their work to be effective advocates for their students. She went ready to fight, if she had to.

“When I got to the school, I got notes telling me that my son wasn’t really working,” Jaramillo says. “The principal said, ‘His body is here, but his brain is not in the room.’ “

Jaramillo immediately understood what was going on. She told the principal what their family had been dealing with at home. Her husband, Guadalupe Pedraza, had been abruptly laid off from his maintenance job recently. After 12 years working there, he was told on a Wednesday that his last day would be that Friday.

Jose took it hard. He had always been a quiet kid, but he started pulling away from his parents even more. “He wouldn’t want to eat, he wouldn’t want to talk with us, he was very depressed,” Jaramillo says.

Jose is a gangly teen with a frizzy cloud of dusty brown hair. His soft voice slows as he describes what those initial months of financial crisis were like for him.

“At first I guess it was shocking,” he explains. “But then at school it was always in my head, that got in the way of me doing my work.” All he could think about was what his dad’s unemployment would mean for the family. His parents had lived in California for nearly 20 years after immigrating from Mexico. “Like, oh, are we going to have to move back to Mexico? Or what’s going to happen?”

It wasn’t just the family’s finances bothering Jose, though. Something deeper weighed on him, too. “I’d never seen him look so defeated and not wanting to do anything anymore,” Jose says of his dad, “like wanting to give up. That changed me a lot.”

Soon his grades were slipping. He’d struggled in his classes since ninth grade, but “the red flag for us was the D’s and the F’s,” says Sandra Ochoa, Pedraza’s AP Spanish language teacher, who gathered with all six of Jose’s teachers to discuss his sudden academic decline. None of them really knew why until the parent-teacher conference with his mother.

“In general, we’re not privy to that information,” says Ochoa, who has since forged strong relationships with the family. “We’re trying to get the content to the kids.”

That basic imperative—just get the content to the kids—has emerged as the dominant rallying cry for education reform today. For decades, at least since Brown vs. Board of Education, advocates inside and outside of government have fiercely debated ways to get everyone a fair shot at learning. They’ve fought over integration, busing, funding, parental choices in schools and, of course, teachers’ unions. Meanwhile, inequities have persisted. Almost 40 percent of black and Latino students don’t graduate high school on time, according to White House figures, compared to a quarter of students overall. According to the latest numbers from the National Assessment for Educational Purposes, only 12 percent of black eighth graders are proficient in reading, where 44 percent of white males are considered proficient.

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