Tag Archives: poverty

It’s Not About Unions Either

I caught the tail end of this CBS News report this morning. It’s the typical kind of media coverage of teacher unions that gives one hugely horrible example of how tenure protected someone who shouldn’t have been in the classroom in the first place and then suggests we need to get rid of unions completely. If the laws are making it difficult to get an abuser out of the classroom then those laws need to be modified. But doing away with teacher unions, which is the real purpose of the multi-billionaires who are funding this lawsuit, is not the answer if the question is how do we make teachers more effective and students more successful?

How great it would be if the billionaires put their money into the classroom to provide coaching and support for teachers to help them become more effective. Think of how far all that money that is currently going to lawyers on both sides would go if the two groups worked together to identify the most challenging environments where teachers, students and their families need substantial social, emotional and economic support to succeed. Let’s move beyond union busting to have the harder conversations about equity and opportunity in this country. Maybe like they are doing in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

At the end of the piece, the commentators all agreed that providing the best education for these kids is the answer to everything so even though they sympathized with the teacher, we just have to guarantee that a good teacher is in every classroom, and they seemed to support this lawsuit. Certainly having effective teachers is essential, but I’m not sure this lawsuit would really make that happen. And, honestly, the better answer to everything would be to figure out how to lift every kid out of poverty.

Getting Started with Kozol

I haven’t set a new 30 day challenge but I am at least thinking about what I am going to read for the next month.  I have been reveling in fiction lately but feeling like I need to dig into some more serious reading. I looked back at my post about the banned books in Arizona. It’s been a very long time since I read Jonathan Kozol so yesterday I pulled Death At An Early Age off the shelf. (I just bought a digital copy of Savage Inequalities so that will be next.) From there, I will dive into the Latino literature on the list with maybe a side of Howard Zinn.  I’m about half way through A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present and this would be an excuse to finish it.

My biggest problem is finding time to read this kind of serious writing. It can’t be at night before I go to sleep because i am simply not attentive enough. Night time is all about easy fiction and falling asleep with a book in your hand. Kozol, Zinn and Latino literature deserve my full attention.

Yesterday, I found that time and dug into Death At An Early Age. His descriptions of the lives of the students and the teachers who expect so little from them is painfully raw in its honesty:

For it is the Boston schoolteachers themselves who for years have been speaking of the Negro children in their charge as animals and the school building that houses them as a zoo. And it is well known by now how commonly the injustices and depredations of the Boston school system have compelled its Negro pupils to regard themselves with something less than the dignity and respect of human beings…the price it exacted was paid ultimately by every child, and in the long run I am convinced that the same price has been paid by every teacher too (1967, p. 7).

We all pay when people are not treated with respect and dignity. And while No Child Left Behind suggested that it was about equality, it did nothing to change the classroom culture but simply said, you need to get everyone to pass a test, a distraction from the real issues that are harder to address. Here’s Kozol on NCLB:

NCLB widens the gap between the races more than any piece of educational legislation I’ve seen in 40 years. It denies inner-city kids the critical-thinking skills to interrogate reality. When they reach secondary school, they can’t participate in class discussions. Only 4 percent of Chicago high school graduates complete four years of college. Ninety-six percent drop out because they’ve never learned to pose discerning questions. NCLB’s fourth-grade gains aren’t learning gains, they’re testing gains. That’s why they don’t last. The law is a distraction from things that really count. There’s nothing in it about class size. Children in the top suburban schools – Brookline, for instance – are in classes of 16 or 18 students. Inner-city schools often have 32 students in elementary school classes and up to 40 in high school classes.

Not surprisingly, Kozol draws attacks. Clearly, Jay Greene is not impressed. And The Weekly Standard makes fun of him, a sure sign he is a danger.

Yet, even as I was writing this entry, Tavis Smiley’s report Too Important to Fail came on. The program focuses on the increased drop out rate amongst teens, especially young Black men and highlights schools that are making a difference in their lives. He is interviewing the principal of a Philadelphia high school who calls these young men victims of Society. They’ve had experiences they shouldn’t have had and they bring those experiences with them to school. Thinking you can ignore that baggage leads to clashes in the classroom. The principal focuses his attention on building relationships with the students to help draw them into the school, baggage and all, and let them see that there is a place for them in school.

We are still fighting the battles for equality of access and opportunity and we’re lucky to have Kozol to continue to lead the way.



Whole System Reform: Balancing the Reaction to Poverty

One of Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn’s big ideas at the ISTE Leadership Forum was that we are after Whole System Reform. This is not the typical educational approach where we tinker, tightening a bolt here, putting on some oil there. We don’t get to the heart of what really needs to be done to ensure we realize Jefferson’s vision:

I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness…Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.

Fullan and Quinn focused on the education system as the system to be reformed.  But, and increasing focus on poverty’s affects suggests that real school reform can only come when it looks beyond the walled garden of the school system to the neighborhood beyond.

In a guest post for Larry Cuban, John Spencer writes about the need to carefully balance accountability with a concern for student welfare.  Recognize the effects of poverty without making it an excuse. He tells the story of Marcus Foster, a Civil Rights era educator who refused to accept limitations for his students but also worked to hold everyone in the system accountable:

On one occasion, for example, he closed the Oakland schools and transported thirty busloads of Oaklanders to the state capitol to seek more support for needy urban students—resulting not only in more money but in “three-thousand folks of all persuasions saying, ‘We stand together for schools.’”

He points to the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education as an organization trying to bridge the gap by acknowledging that a healthy child is a better learner. They also focus on the need to focus on the time students spend outside of school and call for organized learning activities that take better advantage of that time:

Successful programs do not exclusively focus on academic remediation. Rather, they provide disadvantaged children with the cultural, organizational, athletic, and academic enrichment activities that middle-class parents routinely make available to their own children.

A proposal like this emphasizes the need for a bigger view than just the school system as the approach will have to include parents and the community if it is to work effectively.  We are all accountable for having healthy children who can be successful learners and something like this can’t simply fall on the shoulders of school teachers.  This is a community rallying to the aid of its youngest,  most vulnerable members.



The Voices of Teachers

Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody encouraged teachers to write letters to President Obama relating their experiences of Race to the Top and high stakes testing. They are amazing: the voices of people who work so hard for kids every day only to be treated as though they are the ones standing in the way, demonized as union cronies or second rate hacks. They have been publishing some of them to their respective blogs and I would encourage you to read them.  Here’s the one I tweeted out this morning. Shelley Barker from Washington State thinks about the differences between her honors kids and her not-so-honors kids and comes to this wrenching conclusion:

Obviously, the variable is the vast differences in my students’ lives. We cannot ignore the fact that some kids come to us programmed to learn. They’ve had amazing experiences in their short lives. They have parents who support their endeavors, be they academic, artistic, or athletic. They do not come to school hungry and they do not go to bed scared. They travel during school breaks. Their houses are warm and their many pairs of shoes fit. My students who live in poverty do not have their basic needs met. In addition to lacking food, shelter, water, and clothing, many live in chaos. Violence, missing parents, low wages, drug use, loss of employment…the list goes on. How can a child focus on crafting a good title or writing an engaging lead when so many forces, out of her control, take center stage in her brain and her psyche? I’m positive you studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in your academic years. NOTHING that propels growth can happen in a person’s life until those very basic needs are met.

The letter is eloquent and raw at the same time as you feel her anguish over these students. No five point plan or extra testing or charter school or voucher program is going to solve this.  Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty and many of the programs like food stamps and Medicaid that are now under fire were put into place in his administration.

Yet, poverty wasn’t mentioned once in any of the debates, and one of the candidates famously said that he didn’t really worry about the very poor since they were taken care of, as though we had somehow solved the issue of poverty in this country.  We can talk all we want about having a first class education in this country but until we figure out how to reduce the 15% poverty rate, we’ll never succeed.

Of Platitudes and Poverty

In the past two weeks, I have found myself lecturing several well-meaning people on the impact of poverty in education. Both of them were people who had clearly bought into the popular reform idea that charter schools and vouchers, the favorites of corporate reformers, can overcome any and all social issues. I don’t blame them. I think it makes people feel good to think that education can be the great equalizer since it seems like we can fix education while poverty seems unsurmountable.  Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” put anyone who wanted to try to solve the poverty problem on the defensive as we seemed to be making excuses for low student achievement rather than being willing to roll up our sleeves and just teach every child no matter where they came from.  As with most slogans, it simplified an incredibly complex problem.

In fact, trying to tackle the issue of poverty as a way of boosting student achievement is all about high expectations not just for students or schools but for our society in general. We want to do more than get every kid to pass what are often lowest-common-denominator multiple choice tests. We want them to come from homes where wondering about the next meal can be replaced with wondering about the universe.

Valeria Strauss, author of The Answer Sheet at the Washington Post, has been a consistent voice in the fight to reveal the effects of poverty on student achievement. She speaks through her own voice and that of educators who speak from the front line rather than the front office. Here are a few recent columns:

And, for all those people who wonder why the US isn’t first in international testing, here’s a great blog post from Mel Riddle that links the international test (PISA) to poverty in the countries in which it is taken: http://nasspblogs.org/principaldifference/2010/12/pisa_its_poverty_not_stupid_1.html