The Elephant in the Classroom: Poverty and Education

Last week I went to see Diane Ravitch speak, and thought it was worth thinking through and sharing what I heard. To me, her most salient argument was that the most pervasive problem in education today is poverty, and that the Education Reform movement fails to address poverty or any of its implications.

Ravitch began her talk by debunking the attitudes and assumptions that lie at the heart of the ed reform movement, something that many progressive educators fighting against reform forget to do. The entire education reform movement-  high stakes testing, standardization and the common core, pro-charter policies and punitive evaluation system- is based upon two key premises:  that our schools are failing, and that they are overflowing with bad teachers protected by corrupt unions. Even I took the first assumption for granted and have found myself making unwarranted judgements about the teachers at so-called failing schools.

Many have accepted these assumptions as fact in spite of our own experiences and  without demanding evidence to back them up. The two public schools I’ve worked in have excellent teachers, a thriving school community and more. In fact, the only thing holding those schools back is testing and standardization – and lack of funding. On two occasions, my school shared a building with a “failing” public school, but all “failing” meant was that the school performed poorly on standardized tests  (which, as I noted in an earlier post, depend almost entirely on student income levels). What I observed in those schools was not universally bad teaching, but rather, low morale, traditional classrooms with desks and teachers at the front, and lack of leadership.  Meanwhile, the statistics contradict those basic assumptions as well. According to Ravitch, test scores and graduation rates are higher than ever in history. She also pointed out that international test scores serve only to measure how devoted your culture is to test taking, not societal superiority or capacity for innovation and leadership.  What would we really get out of having a nation comprising the best standardized test-takers in the world? Probably poor social skills and a dearth of creativity and critical thinking.  Further debunking the myth of the lazy union loving teacher as the source of all of our problems in education, she added that the three states with the highest test scores have the strongest unions. ( I believe they are NY, MA and MD) Clearly, many of the assumptions held by school reformers are removed from reality.

At the heart of the problems in education, she argued,  is poverty. Any approach to education, new or old, cannot succeed without simultaneously addressing and alleviating widespread poverty.

And if poverty is a primary culprit when we think of those “failing”  schools, what is the Ed Reform movement doing to combat it?  Standardized tests don’t address poverty. Making it easier to fire teachers doesn’t address poverty. Shutting down community schools doesn’t address poverty. The Common Core doesn’t address poverty. Teach for America- it may think it addresses poverty, but paternalistically throwing inexperienced 22 year old teachers into low-income schools for 1-2 years may hurt more than it helps. Funding already high performing schools a la Race to the Top likewise doesn’t address poverty. Busting up teachers unions doesn’t address poverty. A longer school day- I’m a fan but it only indirectly addresses the overwhelming needs of low income students. Finally, relentless rote learning and test prep not only doesn’t address poverty, but also, deprives children of their right and need to learn from meaningful, hands-on experiences with other children, to learn problem solving skills, self control, to be creative and imaginative, to have fun.

We have one of the highest rates of poverty among developed nations- and its growing. There is only so much even the most dedicated teachers can do to alleviate the challenges that many low-income children face- stress at home, instability, racism, unsafe neighborhoods,parks and playgrounds, lack of exposure to sufficient oral and written language, unhealthy housing,  malnutrition, lack of access to health care, lack of pre and post-natal care, lack of sleep, lack of social and emotional skills, hours in substandard day-care and the list goes on. You read any child development book, and it is clear that the most important years in a child’s life are birth to age 6, and within that, 0-2. Poor children who, as infants, don’t form strong attachments, don’t sleep enough or don’t eat right, live out their lives battling the aftereffects of their early childhoods. In the same vein, babies and children whose parents don’t talk to them or read to them, who stay at home and don’t play outside and who don’t play with other children enter school with deficient oral language and problem solving skills. The day they enter kindergarten they are already behind.

There is a world of difference in teaching low-income and middle class or upper middle class kids. I think of students from my current and previous school- both title one. They are wonderful, amazing, funny, smart kids. But, especially in my previous school,  they can be burdened by so much, they often need so much. They have experienced so much hardship and they are only 6 or 7. While a few may have neglectful or even abusive parents, most have wonderful loving parents who themselves are struggling to make ends meet, working several jobs while at the same time, often separated from spouses in their native countries, going to school at night, struggling with English, and still doing their best to navigate the NYC school system. No matter how hard we worked for those kids, they needed more – social workers, health care, better housing, jobs, books, stability, present parents who know how to help them. There are some amazing schools that coordinate or even provide many of these services. That’s where all schools should be headed.

Here’s a list of what Ravitch proposed.

1. Provide prenatal care for all. This would be an investment in the future. Start doing this, and you’ll see Special Education shrink. ( Two students last year who had memory and language processing issues-their parents themselves said something went wrong in pregnancy and/ or birth)

2. Universal early childhood education- I liked how she put it “Kids need to play and engage with a qualified teacher at an early age.” Most of what they should be doing is playing.

3. Reduce class sizes: This is proven-unequivocally, and something that every teacher knows. Give us 20 kids and magic ensues. I remember one day last year when I had 7 or 8 kids absent. It was a whole new world. I could actually give those quiet students who don’t demand attention but still need it plenty of support.

4. Provide a full and rich curriculum, with the arts and P.E. every day. YES!! Our kids need to move. It is insane that in a nation with an obesity epidemic, there are schools and classes that provide no physical education at all. And art is so good for kids, not to mention that it is tied to literacy and they love it!

5. All children need access to medical care and health insurance

6. Schools should provide parent education programs as well as the services of social workers, school psychologists, librarians and summer programs.

7. School systems should have democratic control of schools. ( I’m assuming this means common core could be rejected if warranted.)

8. Training: Teachers need a full year of training, principals should be master teachers, and superintendents should likewise be experienced educators. ( Ah memories of my school last year- principals with no elementary school teaching experience – chaos)

9. Diane suggested moving toward the diagnostic use of testing. I’d like to go a step further and say that if any testing is actually going to be useful to districts, schools or individual teachers, they should create the tests themselves. We also need to recognize that pencil and paper tests are only one way to assess learning, and possibly the worst way, given that it relies on test-taking skills more than anything else.

10. Charters should provide real alternatives, be laboratories of innovation and collaborate with public schools. Yes, please! there are some  independent charters that are managing to do that despite the specter of testing and being shut down. Spread the alternative, experimental love and let the collaboration begin!

11. Provide support to struggling schools and teachers, in the form of master coaches, more resources, smaller classes  etc. Education is a process of cultivation and nurturing so don’t shut all the schools down. Figure out how to support schools and let them hire new staff as needed without the constant closing and opening.

12. Reduce poverty. Getting it on the list is crucial, even if it is much easier said than done and there are a million steps that need to be taken to make an impact. It would be nice, for a start, if local and national campaigns for office simply acknowledged the issue. Perhaps that is why so many reformers are bent on blaming teachers and families, on “raising standards” and testing us into submission- it is much easier than talking about poverty or  the growing income gap in our country and the impact that is having on our public schools.

13. I would add that local city and state governments need to continue to support affordable housing in all neighborhoods so as to promote racial and socioeconomic integration in schools. Research has shown that all students do better in diverse environments.

Following through on any one of these suggestions could make a world of difference in schools. Although I agree with Ravitch that poverty must be addressed  in order to improve education for all, I think that what is simultaneously needed in education is a philosophical paradigm shift from our traditional, industrial, teacher centered, three R’s model of education to an entirely new approach. Teachers and schools need the agency to not only meet student’s needs, but also, to teach to their interests and strengths, to let students be agents themselves. We need to rethink how we group kids and how we expect them to learn: in life- most great work happens in groups, collaboration and community building should be a part of every school day and should bring students of different ages together. We need to think big picture- who do we want these little people to become?  When you enter adulthood you need to know how to communicate, be compassionate, persevere, collaborate, think critically, be flexible and problem solve. This is what we should be giving our students. Beyond college readiness to life readiness, with the understanding that we have no idea what the future will look like.  To that end, all learning should be hands on, meaningful, fun and interdisciplinary (in life problems come at you involving math, science, history and all sorts of things thrown in,) as well as creative and student driven. Learning should be varied across districts and schools so as to be relevant to children’s lives and communities, present and future. To that end, we need to move away from reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Science, technology and real-world experiences outside school walls,  from how to grow a tomato to how to build a computer, should be woven into every school day. Moreover, there should be time in the school day to teach non-academic or non-cognitive skills: Time where the emphasis is on building social emotional competency, problem solving skills, handling frustration and so on. Think morning meeting, play or choice time, singing, sharing and the explicit teaching of these skills.

If we really want to “fix” education, we need to dig deep. We need to confront poverty and its implications and think about who we want our students to become and the world we are leaving them. Teachers and parents can start the conversation. I hope.

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Child development and why it matters

So much to think about these past two weeks… I’m having trouble reining myself in.

I spent this weekend in Philadelphia, where public schools barely opened this fall due to lack of funding, where hundreds of teachers have been fired and a slew of charters open up each year, some good and many mediocre. I think I annoyed my friends because all I could talk about was the school system, and consequently scrutinized every school building I passed for signs of decay.  I kept wistfully thinking about upcoming elections, the idea of ousting Governor Corbett, the engineer of Philly’s crisis, and wondering what De Blasio might do in office in NY. Earlier this week, I heard rumors of Bloomberg’s attempted sale of several branch libraries to real estate developers. I thought of all of my students who don’t have books at home because their parents can’t afford to buy them, and who dutifully go to the library after school and are so excited to tell me about what they found. I was reminded how many preconditions need to be in place for children to be successful in school, and how many of the few societal structures intended to mitigate the effects of poverty on child development, like libraries  and affordable housing, are being scrapped in favor of cash and in this case, luxury condos.

At school, we had yet another meeting about the new teacher evaluation system. I saw the looks on teachers’ faces, dedicated teachers who work 12 hours a day and weekends, whose students and parents love and respect them, and who in their own words are completely “demoralized.” I realized that the teachers union is driven by older teachers who are either close to retirement or retired and have completely different interests than teachers entering the field today. For newer teachers, the evaluation system is making us rethink whether we even want to teach in public schools, whether we can put aside our knowledge of what children need and teach to the test to save our jobs. My friend rightly pointed out that part of the problem is that young teachers don’t get involved in the union. So, I am now resolved to attend union meetings and am on the prowl for radical sub-groups. (NY-CORE here I come!)

Meanwhile, I was pulled for a last minute teacher’s college professional development session, where I was told the right way to teach reading, ( down to what words to say in each lesson) and the wrong way. TC has great curriculum and is a wonderful resource for teachers. But if I don’t organize my library the way they suggest because I think something else would work for my class,  I don’t think my students will end up in prison or working at McDonalds. In fact, if I think about where my students actually are developmentally, what they actually need, and not what a scripted curriculum tells me they need, I think they might be more engaged and more successful in the long run, perhaps even less likely to end up in prison. And yet the staff developer leading the session almost had a panic attack when I told her that my students were not able to read quietly and independently for 30 minutes yet and that we planned on structuring our guided reading groups slightly differently than Teachers’ College intended. ( Keep in mind, some of my students can’t read at all, and many of them are still 6. Think of any six year old you’ve ever met- how long are they able to sit still for?) When kids are not ready, they’re not ready, and when you force them into something they can’t do, they end up frustrated and alienated, convinced they’re not smart enough for school and that there is no point in trying, even in only first or second grade. I’ve seen it. ( And no, I am not saying we shouldn’t challenge students, but there is a difference between a challenge and an inappropriate expectation.) The reason she panicked was not because typically developing six year old children should be able to read for 30 minutes straight or because our approach to guided reading was so radical. Rather it was because less than two years from now, these kids will have to sit for 70 minute ELA tests, child development be damned.  If someone up there in the stratosphere of the politics of standardization had trusted a teacher or parent or child and thought to ask,”Where are 8 year old children developmentally?” I guarantee that the tests would be half as long, and twice as useful.

The latest thing in teaching is scripted curriculum, even though everyone knows that good teachers know their kids and adapt what they teach to what they need and what excites them, and that a poor teacher is not made better by following a script.  Some of these curricula are  good, some are terrible and only serve to alienate students and teachers. All teachers know the experience of scrutinizing a teachers guide and thinking, this just doesn’t make sense. Is this really a thirty minute mini-lesson for first graders? This language is way too abstract for my kids. This assignment is visually confusing etc. ( I’m talking to you Go-Math)  We need the freedom to make that call and not teach what doesn’t make sense to us and for our students, or in some cases with these brand new untested curricula, what doesn’t make sense for anyone. When teachers are forced to cling to their clipboards and read their scripts, they lose not only a sense of agency and investment, but the ability to think on their feet and respond to student needs and interests. Teachers need to deeply understand and know what they’re teaching, and when teachers have a hand in forming curricula they are able to be flexible and respond to student needs, to be reflective and critical, to draw on their strengths and prior experiences,  to dig deeper and facilitate truly groundbreaking learning experiences.

My co-teacher and I planned an interdisciplinary science and social studies project by thinking about what six and seven year olds from Brooklyn can get behind, what they already know and care about, about the neighborhoods they live in and real life problems in NYC as a way to drive our study of NYC geography, geology and culture, while creating ample opportunities for student choice and collaboration. We get positively giddy talking about the trips we’ll go on, the maps we’ll make, the experts we’ll interview and the  research we’ll do. I am so fortunate to work with a co-teacher and be at a school that values this kind of learning is possible. Even so, there remains an all too pervasive mentality that assumes we need to “cover” all the social studies teaching points- because if we miss one bullet point on the social studies scope and sequence chaos might ensue. Scripted curricula, standards and bullet points galore can be useful as resources, but when forced on schools they communicates a lack of trust in teachers, as well as a shortsighted view of education. When teachers “cover material” it never sticks with kids beyond the unit test. The teaching and learning that engenders a thoughtful, compassionate and innovative citizenry derives from meaningful and purposeful experiences, from collaboration and problem solving, not from teachers crossing off bullet points, making spreadsheets or reading from scripts. The reason we have a catastrophic high school drop-out rate is not because there is anything fundamentally wrong with the kids who drop out, it is because from the beginning, school was not designed to meet their needs and keep them engaged- because it doesn’t feel  meaningful or relevant to the real life problems they face each day.

Which brings me to my last thought for the day. Education reform and the fight against it is not just a philosophical debate. When it comes down to it, for me, Its not about philosophy, or about politics. This is about children and what helps them learn, what keeps them interested and hooks them on questioning and critical thinking. I am a progressive teacher because I think it works, because I believe that trusting and empowering teachers and students is a prerequisite for the kind of learning that sticks with kids into adulthood, because hands-on, student driven projects, collaborative problem solving and joyful and supportive classroom environments not only keep children engaged, but help them acquire skills that they can actually use in the real world- whether those skills are cognitive or social-emotional. It is really about child and human development, how we grow and how we learn. Child development is a course in any graduate education program. And then we become teachers and we’re compelled to forget what we learned, and push academics younger and younger, to teach content that has no connection to children’s lives, to  expect all kids to master the same skills at the same time, even though any teacher or parents know that all children are different and what one child can do at 6, another can’t do until 8.

In that vein, here is my free and easy way to improve education in New York, as promised in my last post. Change the cut-off date for entering school. Please. Change the freaking cutoff date. Don’t let any four year olds into Kindergarten. ( Universal Pre-K would be a nice way to soften the blow for low-income parents who can’t afford childcare) Make sure all kids are five when they start kindergarten, and I guarantee performance will peak, teachers will breathe a sigh of relief, and down the line, there may even be, you better believe it, a jump in test scores.

There is a reason we traditionally begin teaching reading when children turn six. There is something magical that happens in children’s cognitive development at around age six.  Six is when children  begin to comprehend and synthesize abstract concepts and symbols, like, lets say, letters, punctuation, numbers, addition and subtraction signs.  And yet, not only are we now expecting children to read  in kindergarten, but more important, many children are five when they enter first grade. Last year when I taught first grade in a title one charter school, 11 of my 25 students were still five when school started. 5 of my students had late December birthdays. Of those 11 students, 10 remained below grade level the entire year although they all jumped several reading levels. Of the 5 students with December birthdays, we suggested that three of them repeat first grade, and all five of them finished the year behind in math and reading. Not to mention that many of these kids were contending with countless other obstacles to their success in school- instability and stress at home, absent parents, health problems, recent immigration, language barriers and more.  A few months makes a big difference at this age, and when you start off behind it can mean years of low-achievement and frustration for children who blame themselves for what they are taught to perceive as failures.

And then there is this year.  About ten of my second graders were still six  on day one. Half my class is reading below grade level. 2 of my lowest students, my non-readers, were still six entering the grade. There are other factors, of course- learning disabilities, language barriers etc. But I feel confident that if all my students were seven in September when the year began, my reading intervention schedule would not be nearly as urgent nor as daunting.  In private schools, all students are five when they start kindergarten. Some of them are even six because their parents hold them back so they can be at the top of their class. In upper-middle class neighborhoods, there are similarly fewer young children in the public schools ( at least the ones I’ve worked in) because savvy parents keep their kids in posh nursery schools for an extra year and still finagle them into their zoned schools. And yet, we’re comparing all these children and holding them accountable for the same achievements, children who not only face radically different opportunities and challenges, but children who aren’t even the same age.

So De Blasio, Obama, here is my plea. Talk to someone who has actually worked with a child, someone who knows child development and knows how children learn. Scrap the testing companies and the top down standardized business model of teaching and learning, and instead train and empower dedicated teachers and administrators to build communities and change lives, cut class sizes, keep libraries open, fund the arts, social workers and community organizers,  service learning and field studies, implement universal pre-k, all because that’s what works, and if you can’t wrap your heads around all that, at the very least, change the goddamn cutoff date.

Next up: Math and what a wonderful world it could be…