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Don't ask schools to fix society’s problems

Ohanian Comment: It's the poverty, stupid! Maybe if we say it long enough and loudly enough, somebody will listen. Good resources here--for when you're making the case in your own op ed. And every one of us MUST write op eds on this topic. Must.

by Paul Thomas

As children across South Carolina re-enter our schools across the state, two recent reports on childhood well-being are worth considering--the State of America's Children 2011 Report (Childrenâs Defense Fund) and Kids Count 2011 (Annie E. Casey Foundation).

Both reports identify the growing fact of poverty in the lives of children across the U.S., a plight on the lives of children that disproportionately and increasingly impacts children of color. Low birth weight, infant mortality, child death rate, high school graduation, home conditions for children, access to health care, and a number of conditions associated with the socio-economic status of the childâs home are highlighted in the reports, resulting in a bleak picture for children in the richest country in the history of the world.

The Kids Count 2011 report also reveals that SC ranks 45th in the country in child well-being--with low birth weight, children living in poverty, and percent of children in single-parent families increasing across our state since 2000.

While the data are alarming, particularly during an economic downturn that has depleted social services and education funding for several years, the reports also help highlight our misguided education reform policies across the state and the nation.

The overwhelming body of research shows that student achievement in schools is most strongly tied to the home conditions of those children, trumping significantly the quality of the school, the standards of the state, or the quality of the teacher. Research from Hirsch for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and from Hanushek [1] identify teacher impact on measurable student achievement as being only about 13-17%.

As well, David Berliner has identified six out-of-school factors that parallel the recent reports on childhood well-being: "(1) low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics."

From the evidence we currently have on childhood poverty and measurable student outcomes, we must shift significantly our education reform strategies in SC and the U.S.

First, we must acknowledge, as Traubdid in 2000, âThe idea that school, by itself, cannot cure poverty is hardly astonishing, but it is amazing how much of our political discourse is implicitly predicated on the notion that it can,â and as Martin Luther King Jr. did in 1967: "We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished."

In short, SC must begin to implement social policies that address the six out-of-school factors noted by Berliner and identified in the two reports about childhood well-being as a foundational step that allows education reform to work.

Once we confront the fact that schools alone cannot eradicate poverty--that school outcomes are primarily a reflection of social inequity and not school quality--we must implement education reform that addresses the ways in which our schools currently perpetuate social inequities through school practices--including the following:

  • Confront and end deficit views of learning broadly and of children living in poverty narrowly. Programs such as those offered by Ruby Payne must be rejected for their baseless claims and we must re-imagine how we view povertyâparticularly in terms of it resulting from social dynamics and not from the people trapped in the condition.


  • Reduce and eventually eliminate our test culture in schools. Standardized testing, such as the SAT, remains biased by social class, gender, and race. The continued use of testing to label and stratify children can only perpetuate, not erase, inequity.


  • End tracking and gate-keeping policies that block children from rich course offerings.


  • End the tradition of assigning the most experienced and well-qualified teachers to the elite students. Children coming from poverty, ELL students, and children of color have the least experienced and un- or under-qualified teachers compared to their affluent peers.


  • Re-imagine public school and college funding that makes college accessible to any student willing and capable, as many European countries do.


  • The much bemoaned achievement gap is primarily a reflection of the social equity gap in SC and across the U.S. To continue to suggest that schools cause inequity or can achieve Utopian accomplishments such as eradicating poverty is as fruitless as our cultural implication that poverty is the product of those living in poverty, and not the conditions being tolerated by the powerful who control the U.S.

    No child chose the conditions of her or his home, and to ask children living lives in poverty just to work harder is a cruel and unfair request, particularly when it comes from adults living lives of privilege and affluence.

    Social reform addressing the lives of children is educational reform.

    [1] Hanushek, E. (2010, December). The economic value of higher teacher quality. Working paper 56. Washington, DC: Calder, The Urban Institute.

    — Paul Thomas
    The State
    2011-08-28
    http://www.thestate.com/2011/08/28/1947937/thomas-dont-ask-schools-to-fix.html


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