Time to stop the hypocrisy about poverty and education

Charles Blow of NYT did us all a great service by reminding us of one of the most important ugly realities of American life today: the increasing poverty of our children.

Suffer the Little Children – NYTimes.com.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 42 percent of American children live in low-income homes and about a fifth live in poverty. It gets worse. The number of children living in poverty has risen 33 percent since 2000. For perspective, the child population of the country over all increased by only about 3 percent over that time.

It should also be noted that many of these children have parents who work, some work multiple jobs (or did), and are still beneath the poverty level. These are significant facts in many ways, one of them being the impact of poverty on public education. As Blow points out in his article, many try to put the blame for the increase in poor children solely on their parents. Likewise, there are those who try to contend that poverty is irrelevant as a factor in whether U.S. children recieve a quality public education.

President Obama has asserted more than once that a child’s zip code should not determine the quality of his or her education. While I understand his point of reference, and cheer the concept, the reality is as long as school funding in our nation is still heavily dependent on local property taxes, poor children will always be underserved and those who work with them will continue to expend precious energies trying to make up for unnecessary gaps in resources and services.  Even long-standing programs such as Title I, have not come anywhere close to bringing educational services in high-poverty districts to parity with their middle-class counterparts within most states. Has the fact that most of what we now label “failing schools” are also the schools that have been historically underfunded and underresourced registered on those who promote wholesale staff replacements as the key to turning those schools around?

I’ve also seen too many educators blaming poor children and their families for not caring about education, while ignoring that those attitudes may in large part be reactions to the school systems which have failed them and their children for so long. How can we, with straight faces, tell poor parents that we take the education of their children seriously, when they can see the physical differences between the schools in their neighborhood and those in neighboring upscale communities? When they can see a constant rotation of administrators, and cycles of temporary, underprepared teaching staff for their children, but veteran, highly accomplished teachers for the children of those who have more? And why should they have to move themselves or their children to get access to those resources and teachers?

As I have argued before, the students of high needs schools need stable, highly accomplished teachers, not just enthusiastic, short-term missionaries. All new teachers are enthusiastic and determined to make a difference for their students. But when placed into districts and schools that have suffered long-term neglect and inequity, many of them either leave the setting, leave the profession, or leave their passion for teaching behind.

Effective teachers are dedicated, reflective, masterful practitioners who (to borrow from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards) know our subjects, know our students, and know how to teach those subjects to our students.

Effective teachers develop significant and lasting connections between our classrooms and the communities in which we teach. The parents in our communities know us and trust us with their children’s education. We’re not superpowered aliens who happened to land in a particular school, but hard-working professionals who have honed our craft the old-fashioned way. The good news is: There are more of us than anyone realizes, and we could be the rule, rather than the exception, in public education.

Such calls are not new. In 1994, at least 16 educational organizations representing teachers of English, math, science, social studies, music, bilingual education as well as the National PTA met to call for establishment of “opportunities to learn” standards across the U.S. That meeting of parents and educators asserted:

Opportunity-to-learn standards at their best should reflect America’s commitment to equitable access to high-quality education for all students. States and schools that meet Opportunity-to-learn standards will enable students to become lifelong learners and lead productive, rewarding lives.

Ironically, of the four major categories of OTL standards put forward, two of them dealt not with more money, but more time for students and teachers to do the real work of teaching and learning. The nation and our policymakers have been slow to move on these recommendations from teachers and parents; favoring instead the advice of entrepreneurs and educational neophytes. Meanwhile, the countries with whom we compete have not only taken those recommendations to heart, but used them to build educational systems that far outpace our own.

In our soon-to-be-published book, TEACHING 2030, my colleagues and I addressed the reality of teacher life inside high poverty schools, and what we see as workable approaches to those realities. The TeacherSolutions 2030 team calls for “opportunities to teach effectively” standards that would help increase the effectiveness of teachers working in high-poverty schools, underscoring our belief that “Effective teachers can be cultivated within high needs schools, not just recruited to them” (192). These standards are outlined in the book, but they start from an acknowledgment of the real inequity that persists among schools in America.