Column: Children need love and kindness to learn

Randy Speck

In the 2011 movie “Moneyball,” Brad Pitt plays the Oakland A’s baseball general manager Billy Beane who realizes his team will need to change how they “do business” in order to be competitive in an ever changing “baseball” world. He challenges the norm and eventually gets people to look at the real problem. There are rich teams and there are poor teams, and as is quoted in the movie, “There are 50 layers of crap and then there is us.” For children in poverty, there may not be a better quote to describe their situation.

It has long been said that poverty is a real issue that we need to tackle. But the question becomes, how do we actually educate kids who come from poorer backgrounds, and more importantly, are we willing to?

There are the basic needs that everyone has: food, clothing and shelter. But two needs that are often overlooked are love and a sense of belonging. We all want and need to be important to someone. And if we are ever going to really look at how to address teaching children in poverty, one way is to begin with the notion that every child deserves to be loved and to be accepted. Every child!

In the Madison District Public Schools, we have tried to do just that. We have students from a wide variety of economic backgrounds and I’ve heard the excuses about why kids can’t learn. Children living in low-income households hear 30 million words less than other students by the time they are 4 years old. Our kids don’t want our excuses about how hard it is to teach them. They need us to help them get results. They need us to help them thrive in a society that assumes they will stay in the cycle they were born in. They need us to care, they need to be chosen and they need our relentless pursuit ... and they need to be loved.

I am fortunate to have so many parents who want their children to succeed. Madison is a school of choice where we accept students from inside and outside of the county. It is an honor when families choose to send their students to Madison. It’s not that Madison has more money to work with than other more affluent school districts; it is quite the contrary. Madison is referred to as a minimally funded district, which means our students receive the minimum amount of dollars but at the same time, we see higher test scores and graduation rates than our neighbor schools. Why? I believe it is because we decided to stop making excuses and instead provide a true place of opportunity for our most vulnerable. There may be rich schools and there may be poor schools, but we can no longer allow any student to believe that because of his or her economic background, they are a part of any layer of “crap.”

In “Moneyball,” the A’s make the commitment to start using data analytics as a prime source for decision-making. While some in education bemoan the overuse of data and assessments, this information provides the guide and allows the students to see their progress in real time. We use the data, we believe in the data and we see the results from the data. But there is one important addition. Kids need to know they are loved and cared for and that their teachers and schools are providing more than reading and math: They are giving them hope. And hope may be the new layer they can build their life on.

Randy Speck is superintendent of Madison District Public Schools.