Too many children today come to our public schools unable fully to take advantage of what we can offer. They may come from racially isolated communities, be poorly nourished, have had inadequate early childhood literacy and developmental activities, be without routine and preventive health care, come from families without stable and adequate housing, live in fear of neighborhood crime and violence, have no access to enriching experiences in their non-school hours, or have parents under severe economic and emotional stress.

Our experience as educators teaches us that these conditions depress student performance in each of the areas we are committed to develop. AASA members pledge themselves never to use these conditions as excuses for failing to elicit the highest possible achievement from children. But we also pledge to speak forcefully on behalf of children’s needs for safe, secure, and wholesome family and community environments that provide the context for what schools can accomplish.

While we embrace the aspiration that every adolescent should graduate from high school prepared for college or fulfilling careers, we cannot avoid notice that college has become less affordable and student debt has mounted to burdensome levels. We will do our best to make all young people college-ready, but we must not neglect to provide students with the opportunity to acquire additional skills in high school that will allow them to pursue careers that may not require a college degree.

For more columns from AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, see:

Coming soon: A national superintendent certification program

What U.S. schools can learn from Russia

How to achieve true educational transformation

In recent decades, school administrators have watched too passively as politicians and media commentators characterized public schools as “failures” and tried to hold school leaders accountable for social and economic problems far beyond our control. AASA welcomes criticism for our shortcomings, and accountability for the best possible practices. But we reject denunciations that assume we operate in a vacuum and are unaffected by the vast and growing inequality in the social and economic conditions from which children come to school.

We are proud of both the historic and recent accomplishments of public education, and we have done too poor a job of communicating them. Too few Americans realize that public schools have raised the achievement of disadvantaged children at breathtaking rates—for example, black elementary school children now have higher achievement in mathematics than white children had only a generation ago, and improvements have been nearly as great at other grade levels and in language arts.

Too few Americans, hearing denunciations of public schools for failing to narrow the achievement gap, realize that the achievement gap has persisted in large part because both white and black student achievement has improved. Indeed, too few Americans realize that, despite our vast social inequalities, American schools have a smaller achievement gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children than do comparable industrialized nations.