Poverty is more than just an excuse
Policymakers and mainstream education reformers have been chronically unwilling to acknowledge education research and evidence indicating the impact of poverty on school children and the need for social and economic reforms. Yet at the same time they demand attention to and respect for the test data they believe is sacrosanct-which should tell common-core trained close readers and critical thinkers that only the most convenient data is important to the current reformer agenda, while inconvenient truths about poverty (even when directly linked to their convenient data) are to be swept under the rug. But to deny how communities in crisis and their schools have been abandoned by policymakers is a dangerous sort of ignorance, and to craft PR slogans like “poverty is not an excuse” to promote an agenda and to help avoid a moral obligation indicates malice aforethought. Students living in poverty can come to school with numerous challenges and struggles that need to be navigated by educators trying to maximize student achievement, and we need to include in any advocacy for better outcomes strategies that directly target the negative impacts of poverty. The formula that combines genetic, familial, and home/community environment factors with the efforts made by schools is too complicated to be dismissed by a slogan or solved by a “school choice” effort that filters away some students from others even less fortunate.
“Socioeconomic status forms a huge part of this equation. Children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance.”
Boots-on-the-ground educators know this, and it’s time for them to take control of education reform and make it real and relevant. It may require some conversations about failures of union leadership at the national level. It may mean some willingness to see that the four walls and an agrarian calendar schooling-model needs revisiting. It may mean a lot of things, but what it definitely means is professional educators leading on education. I have wasted too much time reading criticisms of teachers and schools from sanctimonious travelers who tap dance through schools and across stages sharing a wisdom-lite brand of teaching knowledge as they network/connect/consult; too much time seeing praise of celebrities and talking heads who fancy themselves credentialed by wealth or marrying well and as being experts in educating the poor; too much time seeing a profession victimized by groomed political activists who barely sniffed the job but exude entitlement to stomp over the endeavor of true educators who dove into a career. These fancy pants are not fit to lead this effort.
“Authentic leaders are never found breathing that rarefied atmosphere lying above the dust and smoke of battle” (George S. Counts)
Homework, and Including Parents
But as much knowledge as we might think we have about children living in poverty, and as much as we have learned about what strategies sometimes work with students who struggle with the impacts of poverty, if education reform is to be an honest endeavor (and it should be) the discussion about how to prepare our most vulnerable and needy students, and protect their potential and their outcomes will begin to include cradle-to-school efforts; and then back-and-forth between school and home efforts. It will include considerations to involve parents and to think about what type of communications we have, what type of relations we foster, and even what type of homework we send home with students. I know that the value of giving homework is often questioned, and I have found myself questioning the amount my girls have brought home from time to time, but consider this thought: Poor students need homework.
“Affluent parents whose kids attend great schools see only the ‘work’ part of homework. Those of us concerned with disadvantaged children worry more about the ‘home’.” (Robert Pondiscio, Sept. 2013)
I’m not saying that I have bought into this entirely, but the article that link takes you to makes some good points about how carefully thought out homework might help fill some of the gap between students who benefit from more enriched home lives and students with families that can’t or don’t provide the same environment/experience. This is one reason why I try to engage my students in my “Holiday Homework“. It’s not that I want to make students’ holiday breaks work-heavy, but I want them engaging their brains in a set of tasks, encouraging a home-school connection, getting motivated to have some fun time while being responsible for thinking/writing/responding…
So on homework and parents:
What kind of work should a teacher send home with students?
How much do you send?
Does the student have a person to support and a place to complete the work?
Often, it’s that good ol’ reliable kitchen table that provides the place, and if the student is fortunate: there is also a person to help if needed. In New York, there is no greater poser for the school children than the Governor. Having spent the time Racing To Tie Teachers to testing cinder blocks and drop them into the bay of bad APPR policy, it was quite a shocker to see this television ad during his campaign run against Rob Astorino.
“That’s why I want real teacher and school evaluations, to stop over-testing our children, not to use Common Core scores for at least five years, and then only if our children are ready…And I still believe the best education equipment is the kitchen table, and the best teacher is the parent.” (Andrew Cuomo, T.V ad, 2014)
This wiser, kinder-gentler governor hadn’t made an appearance up to this point, and while he accurately assessed and described the primary importance of parents and kitchen tables in that late-campaign television ad, and has in the past claimed to be a lobbyist for students, he was immediately back on the school-and-teacher attack once reelected.
I have seen little of the tables-and-parents advocacy shtick since.
I see little effort from politicians across the nation other than giving some lip-service to the needs of poor students and their families.
I see even less from those posing as education reformers while offering little more than a selective school market and some poo-hurling from the cover of non-teaching, non-profit activism.
Students will benefit more when our leaders respect and include the people doing the work that they themselves are incapable of doing, and prioritize getting students those parents and kitchen tables.
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