Corporate and political critics of the nation's public schools often state that it's the responsibility of schools to prepare our children to compete in a global economy. As true as that might be, it's equally true that the responsibility lies with the government...with parents...with all of society and with each of us individually. It is disingenuous to blame public schools, public school teachers, and teachers unions for the entirety of the problem. In addition to improving curriculum and instruction in our public schools we, as a nation, also need to attack the most important factor in low school achievement: Childhood poverty.
The case against poverty has been made over and over again. In Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, David Berliner of Arizona State University, wrote
As wonderful as some teachers and schools are, most cannot eliminate inequalities that have their roots outside their doors and that influence events within them. The accountability system associated with NCLB is fatally flawed because it makes schools accountable for achievement without regard for factors over which schools have little control. In part, for this reason, NCLB is failing to show reductions in the achievement gaps on which it is focused. A broader, bolder approach to school improvement is indeed required. It would begin by a reasonable level of societal accountability for children’s physical and mental health and safety.Berliner lists 11 strategies which would do more to close achievement gaps that just focusing on schools. The gaps, he writes,
might shrink more readily if we spent our nation’s precious resources on such strategies...The strategies are:
"The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children." ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- Reduce the rate of low birth weight children among African Americans,
- Reduce drug and alcohol abuse,
- Reduce pollutants in our cites and move people away from toxic sites,
- Provide universal and free medical care for all citizens,
- Insure that no one suffers from food insecurity,
- Reduce the rates of family violence in low-income households,
- Improve mental health services among the poor,
- More equitably distribute low-income housing throughout communities,
- Reduce both the mobility and absenteeism rates of children,
- Provide high-quality preschools for all children, and
- Provide summer programs for the poor to reduce summer losses in their academic achievement.
P.L. Thomas, at Schools Matter, wrote in his latest blog entry, Childhood Well-Being: A Mirror of the American Character that
...we mask and avoid ascribing accountability for childhood poverty to the powerful in the U.S., we also maintain a Utopian claim that public education can and will eradicate that poverty if we simply increase standards, find the right tests, weed out bad teachers and replace them with elite teachers, and eradicate the influence of teachers’ unions.Thomas continues, citing statistics comparing us to other "rich" nations.
The way we treat our children is, as Thomas' title suggests, a mirror of our national character. With nearly 25% of our children living in poverty the method we have chosen to deal with this is to withdraw services for the poor, cut school funding, and allow the rich to increase the percentage of national wealth they hold.
- According to a study for UNICEF from 2007, the U.S. ranks 20th out of 21 industrialized countries in child well-being.
- The U.S. fares poorly in income equity when compared to other countries: “To no one's surprise, the ratio between rich (households in the top 10% of the income distribution) and poor (those in the bottom 10%) is considerably larger in the US than in any other rich democracy.”
Schools don't operate in a vacuum. The outside world has its impact. Until our nation decides to deal with the growing economic inequities between rich and poor and the level of poverty in our society, the achievement gaps will continue to plague our schools. Harping politicians may get votes by blaming schools, teachers and teachers unions, but nothing will erase the fact that teachers and schools alone can't make up for all the ills of society.
"...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children..." ~ Hubert H. Humphrey
I strongly recommend Thomas' post, Childhood Well-Being: A Mirror of the American Character, and the included references and links.
Corridor of Shame - a documentary about the neglect of South Carolina's Rural Schools.
A 60 Minutes piece about children in poverty
The Children's Defense Fund's State of America's Children® 2011 Report
Kid's Count 2011
And at the end he includes a list of Recommended readings...
“Poverty. Just Say It,” truthout
“One in Four California Families Can't Afford Food for Their Kids,” New America Media
“Children in Poverty: How Are Kids in Your State Faring?” PBS Newshour
“Class Warfare: Fact checking pages 1 through 100”
“Poverty and education reform—and those caught in the middle,” The Hechinger Report
“Americans Don't Realize Just How Badly We're Getting Screwed by the Top 0.1 Percent Hoarding the Country's Wealth,” AlterNet
“Children are hidden victims of the economic crisis, report says,” LA Times
“What No School Can Do,” James Traub
“Poverty worsens, and children are hit hardest,” The Tennessean
“Taxing the Poor”
Summer 2011 Issue of PATHWAYS: A magazine on poverty, inequality, and social policy
“On Turning Poverty Into an American Crime,” truthout
James Baldwin on Education