The biggest elephant in the schoolhouse: poverty

By Kathreen Harrison | Nov 13, 2014

Among wealthy reformers and others who have little experience with the reality of a classroom, it has become sexy to blame teachers for the low test scores some students achieve in school. Teachers are apparently lazy, working for payday, uninspired, just needing a kick in the pants in order to produce better student testing outcomes.

Teachers see the matter differently. They see students walk through their doors absolutely unready to learn – hungry, dirty, sickly, angry at life, wondering who will stay with them at home that night, unable to control their impulses, media-saturated, unpracticed in the social niceties that allow people to get along in groups, skeptical that learning what a school has to offer could be helpful in life, starved for physical play.

These factors together are the elephants in the room that teacher-blamers will not face, and the biggest elephant of them all is named Poverty. The current focus on teacher evaluation plans, standards-based education and standardized testing is a distraction from facing and addressing our real problem, which is how we can help families prepare their children for school and thereby give them a fighting chance at experiencing a satisfying life.

Children who are not in good emotional and physical shape generally do worse in school than intact children. Suffering children don’t want to comply with the rules of programs they find irrelevant to their problem-riddled lives. Legions of talented teachers work like crazy across this land, sometimes without much to show for their efforts in terms of test scores, but it is an insult to their Herculean efforts to blame them for not being able to erase the debilitating effects of poverty and other social ills from the children they strive to help.

Certainly, inspired teaching in the context of a great school can do a lot to help students learn. Exciting curriculum can engage even the most disenfranchised student. However, we fool ourselves if we think individual teachers can turn grave situations around singlehandedly. We do not live in a Hollywood movie – the plight of our schools and our children is real and progress requires honest, sustained effort at a systemic level.

We need to move the conversation away from finding scapegoats to one where we look for ways to solve the social problems of childhood poverty and unreadiness for school. Certainly we need to do all we can to create great schools, and support our teachers and administrators as they try to meet the emotional, physical and intellectual needs of our students. Simultaneously, however, we need to create the conditions that will allow families to ready their children to walk through the schoolhouse door adequately fed, rested, calm, healthy and excited to learn.

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Comments (2)
Posted by: Kenneth O Frederic | Nov 15, 2014 07:54

I would hope, Ms. Harrison, your words will be heard by people actually interested in solutions.  (That said, I see at least one quote above seeking to put up more phantom boogey-men scape goats and advance a thoroughly discredited agenda.) Hopefully people of genuine intent, open minds, and reasonable intellect will consider that the problem with schools isn't in the schools, unless we're talking about demagogues imposing 'standards' that distract and demoralize both teachers and students.  If we have an urgent crisis, one we can and must do something about, I believe you've identified it.  It won't be legislated away and it can't be 'spent' away.  It will, I believe, only be educated away when we find ways to persuade parents they're involved, whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not.  Parent is not a title, it's a verb and doing it well is the most important thing anybody will ever accomplish.

Posted by: Sonja Sleeper | Nov 15, 2014 05:56

Why don't you promote genetic modification, then teach the well behaved/tame clones all the same way?  Then you do not have to worry about managing 20 adolescents in one room.  Doesn't matter what one does in any program the individual still needs to do the work.  Or maybe it is the concept of a school that is wrong, eight hours or what is it now four?  How about some schooling alternatives instead of yet another curriculum.

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