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School reforms must fight students' poverty

Note the poverty rate: 46% of Portland elementary public school children living in poverty. In July, Tom Olson explained why he left Stand for Children a year and half earlier. This column below speaks to the fact that he blames poverty, not teachers, as the core problem in student achievement, a problem politicos find it convenient to ignore.

By Tom Olson

The package of education reforms passed by the Oregon Legislature and signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber has a goal that 100 percent of Oregon's high school class of 2025 will graduate on time (Kitzhaber promises to seek waiver from No Child Left Behind, Sept. 9).

I dream about Angelina being one of the state's proud graduates. A beautiful little second grader, Angelina and one of our great-granddaughters are best friends. They giggle together a lot when they play pretend.

Little Angelina faces tough odds. She's one of 46 percent of our school district's elementary school students living in poverty. Her family is in daily survival mode. Consequently, Angelina faces learning challenges -- a vocabulary level of 3,000 words -- while her more affluent classmates have mastered 20,000 words. She's behind on her reading test scores and struggles to catch up.

Last year, Angelina's teacher noticed that on Monday mornings, her usually bright, sparkly eyes weren't so bright. Lethargy and difficulty in focusing are warning signs of hunger. The counselor discovered that Angelina had no food to eat during the weekend. The hunger gnawed at her ability to learn. She received needed assistance through our local "Backpack Buddies" program, but she still came to school undernourished during the week.

One of our compassionate local dentists also provided Angelina with pro bono urgent care. He was the first dentist she had ever seen. These types of school-community partnerships are laudable and essential, but they cannot meet the needs of all poverty-affected children.

With thoughts of Angelina and the 100-percent graduation goal, I dug into the reports by the governor's Oregon Education Investment Team and attended their past two meetings. Decades of research show an undeniable link between poverty and lower student achievement. I assumed this investment team would see poverty as a central problem needing attention, but I found just one paragraph in each of the reports that even weakly acknowledges poverty's impacts on learning.

Although the team is focused on "investment," nowhere did I find acceptance of the state's own quality education model investment goal. The state appropriation for K-12 schools this biennium is $5.7 billion. The latest QEM report concludes that the level of investment needed for adequate school funding is $8.7 billion.

That makes a shortfall of $3 billion.

Only one sentence in all the reports even mentions the state's adopted QEM, while many pages are devoted to cost-cutting and so-called "efficiencies."

The investment team outlines an untested tactic that moves the Oregon's budgeting for schools from "Student Based" to "Outcome Based." According to the team's reports, "The state will be the 'buyer' of outcomes and the schools will be the 'seller' of outcomes." The investment team's approach would put the standardized testing craze on even greater steroids to measure and report outcomes to the "buyer."

Cry with me for Angelina -- and the rest of us. Without a serious plan for addressing poverty, for making the necessary investments in our schools, and for treating students like people (not factory widgets), the state's goal of 100 percent on-time graduation is simply "playing pretend."

Tom Olson is a Canby great-grandfather of 17 children. He's an active local grassroots advocate for children and youth.

— Tom Olson
Portland Tribune





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