Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Recently, Diane Ravitch had an article in the New York Times. One of the things that she said was that, “If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved.” This is a familiar echo of an earlier David Berliner article, “Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform,” in which he emphasized the educational importance of poverty and its horrifying off-shoots: ill nourishment, lead-paint poisoning, psychiatric disorders, drug/alcohol abuse, inadequate housing, and so on.
And who can disagree? Poverty is horrible, and children in poverty should be an affront to our sensibilities. The correlations are clear: poverty kids are less safe, less secure, less healthy, and, yes, indeed, they do less well in school.
But while I don’t disagree with either the claim that poverty matters in children’s education and that children’s poverty needs to be alleviated, I also don’t think poverty gives us any respite from our responsibilities as educators.
The Bush administration emphasized schools only (as opposed to parents) in its educational policies, in an effort to make sure that educators grasped their responsibility for increasing learning. I think that approach goes too far, as there are many ways that parents and communities can help support kids’ learning and we ought to take advantage of every lever that we have.
Likewise, however, we cannot afford to give into the kind of fatalism that afflicts too many of our colleagues. There is plenty that can be done to improve the education of poverty children beyond the things that the housing community, health community, economic development community, and others are doing; they are the ones who fight for lead abatement, nutrition programs, and jobs (of course, we can support those efforts politically and through our own charitable giving and volunteer work). But we are the ones who fight illiteracy and our professional emphasis should be on trying to increase students’ learning no matter how bad their life situations may be.
Educators should focus their attention on making sure that teachers are well-prepared to serve the children in high poverty schools; and that the certification, hiring practices, and economic supports are arrayed in ways that will attract and keep good teachers in such schools. We need to be the proponents of longer school days and school years. We need to be the ones who argue for policies that encourage the thoughtful application of research findings to practice; for intensive and extensive professional development for teachers; for a sufficiency of high quality materials and programs (no, teachers should not be expected to teach without such support); for research dollars targeted on solving real problems.
Poverty is terrible and it impacts children’s ability to learn. But anyone who spends much time observing teaching in high poverty schools knows that poverty is often a lousy excuse for not giving these children the teaching they deserve.
Monday, May 17, 2010
I love Malcolm Gladwell. He is a regular New Yorker contributor and authored The Tipping Point and Blink. Recently, he wrote about how new drugs are discovered, and as usual, his ideas got me thinking.
A century ago, microbe hunters looked for silver bullet remedies; that is, what is the one chemical that will kill off a disease? Drugs like penicillin fit that category. But that began to change in the 1960s when a couple of smart scientists figured out that for diseases like leukemia and tuberculosis, combinations of drugs were needed. The problem is that some diseases are pretty smart. If you introduce a chemical that messes them up in some way, they often reconstitute and continue to ravage the patient. But when you hit them in multiple ways, it is harder for them to respond and the patient gets better.
Multiple solutions to a single complex problem... hmmm, sounds like the right ticket for school failure. Back in the 1940s, Helen Robinson did a pretty interesting doctoral dissertation on reading disability. She identified a small group of struggling readers in Chicago, and tested the heck out of those kids. She collected all kinds of psychological, educational, and pediatric data on them, trying to make sense of why they couldn't read.
What she found out was pretty interesting. There were almost no problems that consistently "caused" learning problems. If a youngster was weak in vision he might struggle or he might not. If a student had a low IQ, that might interfere, and then again, not always. What really put kids in a hole, however, was multiple problems. If a school wasn't doing a good job, and there was a chemical imbalance, and dad lost his job, then there was a struggle. Kids are resilient until too many problems undermine their success: put kids in a high poverty family, they can still succeed. Put kids in a high poverty family and don't send them to school regularly or put them in a poor school, and you might tip them over.
I wonder if it's the same thing with solving our literacy problems in poverty neighborhoods. Improve the schools and literacy improves some, but so far, only a little bit in most places. But what if you intervened with good schools, safe neighborhoods, better housing, better healthcare, more jobs... maybe the disease of poverty wouldn't be able to reconstitute and kids would do much better--they'd have a permanent remission when it came to learning problems.
Now, that isn't really a new idea. I hear it expressed often when I visit inner city schools or talk to colleagues at the university. They aren't impressed with my efforts to increase the amount of teaching offered to poor kids or to make sure that teaching emphasizes those things that have been proven to matter in learning to read. They point out that such ideas are meaningless unless those other changes take place.
And yet, as much as I support the idea of renewed efforts to improve the lives of children living in poverty, the school piece of the puzzle is likely to be essential no matter what the other changes. Teachers can't wait until other conditions improve. They have to teach their hearts out now--you can't just turn such teaching on and off like a water faucet; teachers who are waiting to teach until other conditions improve are not likely to be able to teach when conditions eventually do get better. I think multiple high quality inputs are the way to go, but our responsibility is the teaching part and we need to improve that now. (I have friends who work in housing and health care and law enforcement, and they are all working hard at their part of the problem; they aren't waiting for the schools to get better to do so).