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Air conditioning and the achievement gap: Care enough to be aware

air conditioners
How do we turn on our air conditioning and find a cool retreat while acknowledging that there are so many others who are suffering in the heat?

For 30 years I lived without central air conditioning. I had a loud and very inefficient window air conditioner, which I reluctantly installed halfway through the summer every year. I put fans next to my bed, took cold showers and complained a lot. I was always miserable and crabby in the kind of heat we are experiencing this week.

costain photo
Pam Costain

During this time I also found myself thinking and worrying a lot about other people who were suffering even more than I was. I was concerned about elderly people living on the second or third floors of their apartment buildings with no breeze. I worried about families with young children who didn’t have the cash to get to a swimming pool or buy extra fans. I thought about those who worked outside and hoped they would be OK in the intensity of the midday sun. Because I identified with others who were hot, I thought about and took their experience seriously.

Last summer – after another horrific heat wave – I finally caved and installed central air conditioning. Today as I prepared to come to work, I realized how cool and happy I felt in my morning routine after being sheltered from another hot and muggy night. I slept well and woke rested and refreshed.

I also realized that I was no longer thinking about the people without air conditioning. I didn’t need to; it was no longer my experience. It strikes me that this is like so many other issues. If it doesn’t affect me or my family, I can afford to ignore it.

If my children are doing well in our public schools, the fact that so many other children are not doing well is light years away from my reality. If my child has the opportunity for exciting summer and after-school enrichment experiences, I can be oblivious to the fact that some kids live in neighborhoods that are unsafe to play in and have only TV or baby-sitting by an older sibling. If I can pay for tutoring for my child who is behind in math, I can escape thinking about all the families who can’t afford this luxury. I can compensate for summer learning loss, but the family down the street cannot.

Herein lies the dilemma of living in a racially, economically and culturally diverse community. How can we be grateful for what we have without forgetting about others who don’t share our comforts, privilege or financial resources?

How do we turn on our air conditioning and find a cool retreat while acknowledging that there are so many others who are suffering in the heat? How can we know that our own children are doing well while remembering that this is not true for all of the children in our city?

Do we care enough to be aware?

Pam Costain is the CEO of AchieveMpls.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 07/19/2013 - 01:30 pm.


    This is good food for thought. I have one semantic suggestion because I believe words have power, so I hope the does not come off as petty.

    I think we have to get away from using the words “achievement gap”. This wording puts the problem squarely in the laps of those most offended by our culture of privilege, and takes all of the responsibility off of the dominant culture. It is their outputs that are the problem, not our inputs.

    Some suggestions might be opportunity gap, equality gap, services gap, or something else that might imply we have a responsibility for the problem because of our privilege.
    Thanks for your consideration,

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 07/21/2013 - 10:52 am.

      I deeply object to the term “achievement gap”

      But for a different reason than Mr. Timmerman’s. It defines the problem as one that can be solved just as well (& of course much more cheaply) by leveling: ignoring or suppressing the potential of those kids (like mine) fortunate to have learning assets. I believe deeply that all families should participate together in public education. When more privileged families leave a public education system, it will fail. But every time my public school board or superintendent says “achievement gap,” I hear “we don’t care about your kids.” Kids who come without learning assets need much more than my kids, but the goal is to lift all boats and the language ought to reflect that. “Gap” is the wrong language. Achievement – realizing potential for everyone – is the goal.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/20/2013 - 08:01 am.

    Oh the angst

    of the white, bourgeois liberal.

  3. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 07/22/2013 - 07:22 am.

    Achievement gap is one, not only priority

    As we showed in Cincinnati public schools, it is possible to increase overall hs graduation rate and dramatically reduce the achievement gap between students of different races and income levels.

    Another priority is to help more young people be better prepared for some form of higher education (40% of Mn high school graduates have to take remedial courses on entering Minnesota’s public colleges and universities. Still another priority is to help more young people believe they can and should work for a better world. Schools are supposed to prepare students for active constructive roles in a democratic society.

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