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.