Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Warren urges every child be given ‘a fighting chance to succeed’

March 14, 2016
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren poses for a photo with Lee Gurel ’48 - Clark University

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren poses for a photo
with Lee Gurel ’48, prior to the Senator giving the
2016 Gurel Lecture. / Photo: Matthew Healey

It was not a religious revival, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren did ask for one “amen” from the podium in Clark University’s Atwood Hall. Recalling the Supreme Court’s historic decision ending school segregation Brown v. The Board of Education, she cited Justice Earl Warren, who observed that a public school education “is a right that must be made available to all on equal terms.”

“Can I get an ‘amen’ on that?” Warren asked the audience, which responded with an ovation.

Warren delivered the sixth annual Lee Gurel ’48 Lecture on March 14, emphasizing the federal government’s vital role in ensuring that when it comes to public education every child should get “a real opportunity and a fighting chance to succeed.”

The lecture, and the subsequent Gurel Symposium on Education, were sponsored by the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise and MassINC.

By way of illustration Warren recalled the “The Problem We All Live With,” the famous painting by Norman Rockwell that depicts Ruby Bridges, a young African-American girl, walking into school past a wall marred with a racial epithet and a smashed tomato. She’s flanked by federal marshals, and the symbolism is clear, Warren said. Her right to an education was being protected — “The federal government was there for her.”

The message carries forward today. “Gateway” cities like Worcester, and other urban school districts, need a federal commitment to promote achievement, she said. The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, Warren noted, was a significant improvement over No Child Left Behind, but one that required significant revisions to ensure federal authority over how the states use the money. She co-sponsored an amendment that gives added assistance to the 1,200 high schools in the U.S. from which fewer than two-thirds of the students graduate. Another amendment stiffens data-collection methodologies so that states are reporting more accurately.

The government also needs to crack down on “predatory” for-profit colleges that “suck down 20 percent of all federal aid and loan dollars” while being responsible for 40 percent of all loan defaults, Warren insisted.

She listed six things the government should, and can, do:

  • Offer a debt-free college option for all students
  • Fight back against resource inequality among schools, ensuring that students in urban schools have the same opportunities as students in suburban districts
  • Ensure children born in this country to undocumented parents receive an education equal to that of other children
  • Ensure black and Latino students aren’t disproportionally suspended and fed into the “school-to-prison pipeline”
  • See that black and Latino students aren’t disproportionally placed in special education classes
  • Guarantee that girls and boys have equal access to sports, science and math.

Warren began and ended her presentation by recounting her own journey in education, from her days playing school with her doll collection to the opportunities public school provided her to build a life and career. She insisted it’s the responsibility of the federal government to provide those same opportunities to today’s students “regardless of state, income or zip code.”

“These aren’t other people’s children,” she said. “These are our children.”

Afterward, in a room below Atwood, Warren fielded questions from the media. She declined to say if she preferred either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton for president, and when asked if she would consider the vice president’s position, she replied that she loves the job she has.

The education symposium led by Katerine Bielaczyc, director of the Hiatt Center for Urban Education and association professor of education at Clark University, brought together four experts to discuss the prospects for students in urban schools to gain a full complement of 21st-century skills that will serve them in the classroom and beyond. Participants were: Nick Donohue, president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation; Ronald Ferguson from the Kennedy School of Government and director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University; Dianne Kelly, superintendent of Revere (Mass.) Public Schools; and Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the National Center for Innovation in Education.

How schools will respond to the Every Student Succeeds Act has yet to be determined as they navigate the opportunities and challenges, the panelists said. Kelly said she liked the move away from high-stakes standardized testing, but observed that her schools continue to face significant challenges. She said the governor’s proposed budget leaves Gateway cities out in the cold when it comes to education funding, with massive layoffs looming if there isn’t an infusion of aid.

Other panelists questioned whether schools have the capacities to carry through on the promises laid out in the new law, especially if the historic nature of delivering an education remains unchanged. Donohue called for a dramatic shift in student engagement, away from “a 19th century model rooted in 17th-century ideals.” He’s looking for students to exhibit true mastery of a subject before advancing, and hopes for honest community conversations about the future of education, as well as about race and white privilege.

The jury is out on how states will respond to the issue of inadequate resourcing in certain school districts, Wilhoit said. We can’t continue to under-resource the most at-risk students and expect positive results, he said. But are those with more willing to give up something to better serve the neediest students? “Equity is not equal,” he said.

Ferguson talked about areas of concentrated poverty, where the schools are overwhelmed and left unstable by behavior problems. “The greatest inequality is access to an orderly classroom,” he said. “Time on task is one of the strongest predictors of learning.”

He urged more discourse about students’ life experiences, noting that children begin learning language in-utero and that by age 2 some kids can exhibit perceivable learning gaps. By the age of 5, when they’re starting school, they’re already struggling to catch up, he said.