The IRA Governmental Relations Committee invited Don Deshler and I to speak at the recent International Reading Association conference in Chicago. The topic that we were given had to do with educational poverty and children in need (such as the children served in Title I schools).
One of the points that I made in that meeting was how formidable the challenges of teaching children whose lives are scarred by poverty (both U.S. and international research bases are replete with such data). However, I also pointed out the importance of tending to our knitting. Too often I hear educators whining that we can't be expected to teach these children successfully since they are poor. I do appreciate and agree with the accountability parts of that argument, but not with the basic sentiment.
I work with many people who are dedicated to improving the lives of those who do not share in the economic benefits of our society. These colleagues are not educators, per se; they work in public health, housing, criminal justice, employment and labor relations, environment, transportation, etc. All of their jobs are complicated by poverty and low education, and yet, none of them throws up their hands and says, "I can't possibly do my job effectively as long as the schools continue to fail. There is nothing I can do until someone fixes the schools." (Sadly, I do hear such plaints from too many educators.)
There is no question that lead paint continues to plague those who live in the poorest housing in America; the housing likely to be lived in by our poorest citizens. There is no doubt that crime is more rampant in their neighborhoods. And, there is no question that health and nutrition are more tenuous in those areas as well. But there are people who work mightily in all of those areas fighting for funding and working hard to solve the parts of the problem that have been assigned to their professions.
The one difference in all of this is that no one is talking about firing policemen because crime rates are too high in certain neighborhoods. And, I am not aware of any big push to fire the health care workers because of our burgeoning obesity, diabetes, and asthma problems in poor neighborhoods. Those are complicated problems and the professions addressing them are not solely accountable.
My basic point was that as important as it is that the needs of impoverished communities be served in many ways, that the multiplicity of the problem in no way absolves us of the responsibility for addressing our part of the problem. Not long ago, an educational psychologist pointed out the unfairness of expecting schools to follow NCLB (doing such things as offering tutoring to students who were failing) given that lead paint is still a serious problem facing many students and that NCLB provided no funding for lead paint removal. The fact that lead paint abatement receives substantial funding through public health laws (rather than education laws) didn't phase him. I certainly don't want those who work on lead abatement, or any other problem, to walk away from those problem until we successfully address the education problems of these communities, and I don't think we should --even rhetorically-- wash our hands of such responsibility. The problems of poverty are not ours alone, but responsibility for addressing and advocating for particular parts of the problem (in our case, the pedagogical parts) is solely ours.