Our Take

Stop Calling Education a "Gift"

Have you ever noticed how passive the language of education is? We talk all the time about schools “giving” our kids a good education, for example. An education, in this way of thinking, is something you receive, something bestowed on you.

But that’s not how it really works, is it? Education’s no gift to be given; it’s something you claim for yourself and your family. It is a prize to be hard won.

This may seem like semantics, but it matters. Inaccurate language leads to unhelpful habits.  We start to see education as something students are bound to get if they show up at school to receive it.  If they accumulate 13 years of seat time, they will have gotten the education they came for.  This language turns students and families into silent beneficiaries, and puts power in the hands of educators alone.

The problem is, there’s no guarantee that when students follow the rules, they will walk away with an education worth 13 years of their time.  Instead, some of them get watered-down high school diplomas, college debt, and disappointment.

It doesn’t need to be that way. Families and students who get the education they want typically take charge of the process. Here’s how they do it:

1. They know what they want

Families who navigate schools effectively are locked on to clear goals. They expect success.  They are thinking about college before their kids start kindergarten. They want their children to develop the tools and knowledge to be successful in multiple aspects of adult life, from work to community to family – and they build towards these goals with deliberate strategies.

2. They stay alert and aware

One of our Navigators says the change she most often sees after working with parents for a while is that they become “mindful” about school; they go from passively accepting to actively engaging and questioning. They ask things like, “If everything is fine, why has my daughter been having so much trouble with her reading?” or, “If this support is implemented, how much improvement should we expect to see in my son’s writing by the end of this school year?” They notice when someone at school says it will provide half an hour of small group reading instruction each week, but their child says it hasn’t happened in months. They scan constantly to verify that their children are learning, not just attending. They don’t just set it and forget it.

3. They don’t wait and see

When their strategies do not work, they notice and move on to the next strategies, because they know that amassing an education is a deliberate process and the clock is ticking. Families who seize an education understand that the success of their children is more important to them than it is to anyone else. They know they are the safety net. They are the ones who need to ring the alarm when an education has been threatened. They cannot rely on schools that educate hundreds of students or districts that educate thousands of them to play that role. Too many students have fallen through the cracks of those schools and districts. So they don’t wait, they don’t assume – they ensure.

Is this the way it should be? No. In an ideal world, all families could rely on schools to provide an excellent education to every child. That’s the world we’d all like to live in and hope to build. In the meantime, though, we live in this world, where a great education isn’t guaranteed and the playing field for families is far from level.

It’s not fair. 

It’s not fair because some families are dramatically more able to claim an education than others. They have time, resources, access, information, networks. They can make up for any shortcomings in our education system through coaches and afterschool classes and summer camps and home libraries. Generally, they have had positive experiences in education themselves. They know how the system works and have watched others make it work for them. They aren’t intimidated by bureaucracies and always have alternatives when plan A doesn’t work out.

And it’s also not fair because our education system constantly sends parents a different message—that although they are expected to contribute within certain narrow parameters (ensuring homework gets done, getting kids to school on time, packing healthy lunches, attending school events), they should leave the rest to the professionals. Schools do not generally want direct engagement, which looks like parents asking questions and challenging decisions. They protect access and information and too often keep parents on the sidelines. They continually try to assuage them: Trust us, they say, and everything will be ok. Give it more time.

What’s the answer? You won’t be surprised to hear that we believe every family should have a trustworthy source of support and counsel, someone to advise them on their path through schools. But more broadly, families need to reconsider how they see schools and themselves, and go from passive recipients to active, informed and empowered participants. That takes some give on the part of schools, and some take on the part of parents. So let’s retire the weak clichés about education. Stop wanting. Stop waiting. Start demanding.