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Better Childhoods Needed

Publication Date: 2012-06-26

June 21, 2012

This was written by a concerned citizen in Omaha, Nebraska, who sends this message to his local media. Go forth and do likewise. Write letters to editor, to your Congressional representatives, and other interested parties with this message: Poor children don't need better schools. Poor children need better childhoods.

We should stop thinking of the disproportionate academic failure of poor children as a sign of the failure of our schools. Instead, we should begin to recognize it as the modern day equivalent of canaries in a coal mine.

Before the development of sophisticated devices to detect and warn of the presence of odorless, tasteless and colorless -- but very deadly -- methane gas that could seep into a working coal mine, miners would take caged canaries with them to work. When the canaries -- with practically no tolerance for methane -- began to collapse, the miners knew that methane was in the air they were breathing and that it was time to vacate the mine or begin to lose consciousness and quickly die.

If more children are failing in our schools, it is largely because more are spending childhood immersed in poverty. Poor children are failing at the same rate as they always have. We are noticing it more lately because poor children are becoming a larger and larger proportion of AmericaĂ¢€™s birth-to-18 population.

Their noticeable failure should be interpreted just as the miners used to interpret unconscious canaries. America is generating the cultural equivalent of deadly methane to the extent that it allows its future citizens to reach the age of adulthood without being effectively nurtured as children.

I am beginning to think that there is only one thing on which America should be spending resources in order to promote the academic advancement of children living in poverty. We should do whatever we can to make the 50,000 hours between conception and the first day of kindergarten more stable, more humane, more friendly, more supportive, less toxic, healthier, more attentive, more nutritious, safer, less threatening, less abusive, more nurturing, more respectful, less neglectful, etc, etc, etc.

The futile "reform" of our K-12 schools is certainly not the answer. School reform has failed consistently since it first became politically popular in 1965. Schools don't fail. Some students fail in school. Most of the students who fail are students who spend childhood immersed in poverty.

Less than 9 percent of any childhood is spent in school. The other 91 percent is spent someplace else. To the extent that America can make the conception-to-kindergarten lives of its poor children more like the lives of its non-poor children, a growing share of our children will succeed in school and a growing share of our children will become contributing adults.

Every year in every school in America, a significant minority of poor children does every bit as well in school as their non-poor classmates. This is very probably because their parents -- even in the face of numbing poverty -- go to very considerable trouble to actively nurture and guide their children. Every child deserves that kind of childhood. Most non-poor children get it. Most poor children do not.

There is plenty of reason for despair about the prospect for AmericaĂ¢€™s children. When I was in school (45 years ago), poverty wore a metaphorical hearing aid. Today, thanks to Social Security COLAs and limitless Medicare benefits, poverty in America has exchanged the hearing aid for a diaper. Americans over 65 constitute our wealthiest cohort by age. Conversely, nearly one in every four American children now lives in poverty and that fraction is growing.

I and other members of my "baby boomer" cohort are signing up for Social Security and Medicare and George W. Bush's prescription-drugs-for-old timers program at a rate of 10,000 every 24 hours. That's another adult at the public trough every 8.7 seconds around the clock every day of the year. That rate is scheduled to continue unabated through 2038. And we vote. And children do not.

Poor children don't need better schools. Poor children need better childhoods. The future of America depends upon it. If America cannot respond to this need, America will not succeed. Nor will it deserve to.

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