My nine-year old Tucker plays AAU basketball for a struggling inner-city team about 30 minutes from where we live. His teammates call him “Shadow” and most times we are the only white family in the gym for games and practice. We (mostly my wife Wendy) haul his (and his sister’s) butt down there three times a week for a couple of reasons, first and foremost because we want him to see that a large chunk of the world looks little like the un-diverse, rural space in which he’s growing up, and, second, because the basketball is just grittier, tougher, faster, played at a different level than in these parts. The gym in which his team plays is 2/3 the size of regulation court with blue-padded stanchions that jut out from the sidelines and become part of the game, and dim fluorescent lighting that depending on the level of sunlight filtering in from the grimy skylights makes the basket a dark target. It’s a no blood-no foul type of game they play, the fundamentals of which are no look passes and under the basket scoop layups which even on a 10-year old level are both beautiful and at the same time difficult to watch. For most of these kids, basketball is a respite from the the difficulties of their lives, lives that are surrounded by poverty, violence and drug use. There are gangs in the middle schools, absent fathers, job layoffs and more, so whenever these kids get the chance, they play, and play, and play some more. And my kids try to keep up.

Tucker has made some fast friends with his teammates. They are sweet, respectful, fun kids to be around. The last couple of weekends, we’ve hosted sleepovers, or more aptly, shootovers as most of the time the sounds of basketballs being pounded by the hoop at the end of the driveway echo through the house. But we’ve also been doing some “field trippy” sort of stuff. A couple of weekends ago, Wendy got their parents to give them a day off of school to go to a statewide GreenFest to have fun but, as is my wife’s way, to get them thinking about the environment. They saw solar cars, learned about organic foods and, at one point, got a lesson on worms. Each of them got a container with some compost, a few poop generating worms, and instructions on how to use them to create great fertilizer for plants. It turned out that for two of the three kids that Wendy spirited off with, it was the first time they had ever held a worm. In the course of the few days they were hanging around with them, we found out all sorts of stuff about their lives and about what they knew about the world, which was, not too surprisingly, not much. At one point when Wendy asked one of them how many people he thought were in the world, he answered “10,000”. The next weekend, we went to “Ringing Rocks” which is this strange little geologic enigma near us, followed by some first-time skipping of stones in the Delaware River near our house. It was an interesting few days of learning for all of us.

There is no doubt that these kids face some pretty difficult futures as a result of circumstances not of their making. It’s pretty obvious they are behind in terms of what they know about the world and their ability to express it well. That’s not an indictment on their schools, per se, as much as it is the inequality that exists in this state and others between the education of the haves and the have nots writ large. But while they say they get “Bs” in school, I can’t help but wonder what that means. No doubt, there learning lives are aimed at what’s on the state assessment, yet they are behind in reading and writing and math. And to be honest, I’m not sure the system can overcome the difficulties present in these kids lives from the start. I don’t think the answer for them is longer school years or teachers getting “merit pay” (or battle pay) as much as it is a fix for the societal problems that surround them. Yet in this moment of steep budget cuts and layoffs, those fixes don’t seem to be on the horizon for them any time soon.

But it’s not just them. Last week I was on a panel with the state assistant commissioner of education where she told the story of seeing the “new” digitally published third-grade “U.S. States” projects, the ones we all did as kids, taking a state of the union and pasting the state bird and state flag and state flower on top of a map with some interesting statistics around it. She asked one young man who did New York State to talk about his slide and he read off all of the stuff. When he got to the population part he said “and New York State has over 19 million people,” and she responded with “Wow! Is that a lot of people?” He looked at her for a moment and said, “you know, I really don’t know.” It was a great example of the context and value that information loses when we fail to teach meaning over memorization.

For Tucker’s friends, for that kid learning about New York, for a lot of kids in this country, it becomes obvious very quickly that we are failing them. Like I said, I know it’s more complex than just blaming the schools and the teachers, which seems to be de rigeur these days, btw. Which is what is so disheartening about the rhetoric that continues to come out of Washington around education; there’s nothing really new. Nothing bold. Nothing that makes me feel like we’ve turned any corner on any of this. We’re arguing about the same old ideas and writing about the same old shifts when the reality is that the lives of those kids on Tucker’s team haven’t changed a bit from all the bloviating going on.

Not suggesting I have the answer here. My frustration just gets more acute when faces and smiles and hook shots come with the statistics.