Poverty is a burden on schools
Ohanian Comment: The reader comments at the paper's online site were as ugly as I've ever seen--you know the kind: How dare people on food stamps buy potato chips? And worse. I don't think telling them to read Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier would do any good. The editorial isn't perfect but I applaud them for standing up to the abuse they knew they'd get. And so I wrote a letter to the editor.
As someone who cares about the survival of public schools, which people find so easy to blame for everything from bad manners to a bad economy, I want to thank you for your strong, brave editorial "Poverty Is a Burden in the Schools." Please know that your editorial is traveling: I received it here in Vermont from a longtime teacher in Hawaii. I know that people in the Tennessee Valley won't give a fig about our opinion, but I want to join the fair-minded people in Decatur who are shouting praise.
Instead of blaming schools, what we need to do as a nation is provide people with a living wage.
Standardized test scores may be a useful indication of how well communities are doing in preparing their children for careers, but they are not particularly helpful in evaluating school performance.
The failure of standardized tests as a method of grading schools is that too many factors outside of a school's control directly affect a student's academic success. The most dramatic factor is poverty.
Last week, Decatur City Schools secured a grant that allowed it to increase the number of free breakfasts it serves at schools from 1,500 to about 2,500. Even with the grant, this increase added to the burden on DCS. Education purists can point out with frustration that this is yet another example of a use of school resources that is not focused on academics.
What DCS is doing, though, is a necessary step if it hopes to raise test scores. Repeating multiplication facts ad nauseam to a hungry child does no good. Indeed, many DCS programs are expanding beyond pure academics in an effort to address the extensive needs of children living in poverty-stricken households.
What Superintendent Ed Nichols recognizes -- what teachers long have understood ΓΆ€” is academic success is impossible for a child whose basic physical and emotional needs are not being met. If neither the child's family nor her community is meeting those needs, and if the school expects her to succeed academically, then the school must meet them.
The problem with the federal No Child Left Behind law and with the Alabama Accountability Act is not so much that they evaluate schools based solely on students' standardized test scores, but that they fail to acknowledge the immensity of the challenge for school districts -- like DCS -- with high poverty rates. Instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic is an essential part of educating a student, but it is not enough for many students who live in poverty.
By demanding that schools meet rigid measures of academic success, the laws effectively are requiring those schools to assume the task of meeting the many non-academic needs that are a prerequisite to academic success. In schools with a high percentage of impoverished children, those needs are many.
As a community, we should demand that all children have the academic foundation needed for career success. If we want our schools to bear the full burden of accomplishing this task, we must recognize we are asking them to perform functions not traditionally demanded of schools.
Either we need to acknowledge this reality with increased funding, or as a community we need to find other ways to meet the non-scholastic needs of children living in poverty.
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