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NCLB Outrages

Tests don't account for poverty trap

by Walter Brown

Your readers should understand the full context of the comment by Brooke Dollens Terry, "School accountability system lacking" (Sunday).

Just look at all the low test scores in low-income schools, she says. Those teachers and administrators must be goofing off. If they would just do their jobs properly, all those poor children would ace the TAKS, or the end-of-course exams, or whatever else our legislators cook up.

According to her posted bio, Ms. Terry has never taught in an inner city or any other classroom. After graduating from a wealthy suburban high school and Baylor University, she worked for a series of conservative Republican politicians in and out of Washington before joining the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

TPPF is a "think tank" that lobbies for vouchers and against public schools, for coal-fired power plants and against "environmentalism" in the curriculum, for high standards but against smaller classes, and generally to decouple issues of educational quality from questions of equity and school finance reform.

So when she tries to blame teachers for poor student performance, she has no credibility.

I am a teacher, and I know that students can't leave their home experiences at the schoolhouse door. Their economic, social, and emotional burdens often hang in my classroom like a toxic cloud.

Does Ms. Terry really expect me to fully compensate for a mother who allows a young man to move in as her 14-year-old daughter's "fiancé" because he brings in an extra paycheck? For a father who provides a "role model" of abandoning the family, or going to prison? For a "home" consisting of a single unlocked room over a bar, with a shared bathroom down the hall? Or more generally, for a street culture where the meaning of honor, respect, and achievement has been perverted to practically require an active resistance to learning?

Those are not "education" issues, at least not in the narrow sense in which an under-financed school district can address them. They are symptoms of a poverty which extends beyond a simple lack of money, and which cannot be eliminated without a broad social commitment that includes, but is not limited to, a robust system of public education.

Those who attack our public schools are simply unwilling to make this commitment. They want to isolate themselves and their children from poverty and its consequences. For them, society has no right to tax their resources to advance the common good except for national defense and local law enforcement, to keep the "problems" away from their doors.

Children of the poor are the problem of the poor, and become a community problem only when it's time to expand the police force or build new prisons.

Narrow, cheap-to-score, multiple-choice tests are just another political tool to advance this backward agenda. The bar is set high enough to "fail" many poor children, but not so high as to embarrass the sons and daughters of suburbanites.

The tests sort kids, and their schools, more by family income than by the competence or dedication of teachers and administrators. Then the scores are said to "prove" that public schools are failing, and therefore are undeserving of our taxes.

Enough already. Self-serving ideology never educated a child. And it will never break the cycle of poverty that entraps generations of innocent children, burdens our entire nation, and persists as evidence of our collective indifference.

Walter Brown teaches math at Brackenridge High School.

— Walter Brown
San Antonio Express-News


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