The Real Key to Educational Reform–it’s not what the reformers want you to know

A recent article in Salon about the infamous Michelle Rhee reminded me of the one factor all the alleged education reformers seems to miss when it comes to how to really improve the educational system in the United States. It, however, did not address the other side of the coin. It is my hope to address both sides of what is possibly the real key to have students in the United States to succeed beyond current levels.

When most of the alleged education reformers go on the attack, they blame teachers for the lack of educational achievement that is occurring far too often in the United States. The reformers cite studies and research, usually funded by those who agree with them, that say the reason why our students are not achieving is because the teachers are not doing their jobs. They say that tenure has created teachers who are lazy and care only about summers off and their paycheck. As a former teacher, I can honestly say that there are bad teachers out there who take advantage of the existence of tenure, but they are the minority. The vast majority of teachers are competent and caring individuals who wish to educate and bring up the future of our country as well-versed and well-rounded individuals. However, they are stymied by the endless rounds of standardized tests that occur within our nation’s schools as well as scripted curriculum that prevents the actual learning of lessons, but certainly raises great test takers. The gathering of data is not educating nor is having students take endless End of Term, End of Course tests written by those who have not likely graced the walls of a classroom in decades.

The problem is not with our schools. It’s within our society as a whole. It is poverty. On one end it is literal, financial desperation. On the other, it is literal, integrity-deficit desperation also known as privilege. Both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum produce students who have negative educational achievement. Very different reasons, yes, but still the same lack of achievement.

I have taught students at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Their needs are very different. Providing them with the desire to achieve is also very different.

Students who live in poverty do not perform well in school because their basic human needs are not being met. To put it simplistically, if the stomach is rumbling from hunger, then the brain is not going to focus well on academics. Humans have certain basic needs: food, safe shelter, basic medical and health needs to be met, and proper clothing. If any of these are not being met, then humans tend to focus on ways for those needs to be met. Once the needs are met, then other things can take precedent in their lives, such as education. It does not take a huge research grant to know this, but it does take people from within the social realm.

I’ll give you a couple of good examples, one personal and one from my sister who was a teacher.

My sister, now deceased, was an elementary school teacher. She was a marvel to watch teach. In her first teaching assignment, she taught elementary school in a city near the Appalachian foothills of SE Ohio. The students she taught were poor. Many came to school without food, without supplies, and without proper clothing. She noticed that they were having issues with focusing on lessons, so she did what her heart led her to do. She brought in food. She brought in supplies. She even took what little additional money she could from her own paycheck and bought students coats, gloves, and boots from discount and secondhand stores in the area. Student learning went up in her classroom when they students knew they could get even a basic meal, supplies, and warm clothing. They had their basic needs met.

From my own teaching experience, I witnessed a different form of poverty at my initial assignment in a middle school in Florida. Many students had the clothing, usually such as to mask their poverty. Many did not have the supplies, which I learned to have on hand at all times. Food was sometimes an issue. I tried to have either a little extra to share in my lunch or an extra dollar or two to give them to get something to eat. (It was not exactly against the rules to give them money, but it was certainly frowned upon, but I did it anyway). Many of them lacked active parents in their lives as some of their parents were drug users, alcoholics, and even prostitutes. I had one single mom of one of my students who was an exotic dancer who told me I could have a parent conference with her only if I came to her show and brought dollar bills. She said it might be beneficial for both her student and her if I took her up on the offer. I did not for a number of reasons, including the fact that I might be fired for doing so as teachers are held to a higher standard than to frequent strip clubs. My students needed someone who cared about them first. A classic Ruby Payne observation that many students in poverty value relationships first and foremost. Once you build a rapport, you can teach them anything with relative ease. That worked for me at that middle school as well as the one after that which was a school in the midst of a neighborhood transition from middle to upper class that was slowly getting students from less affluent means.

The fix for poverty at this end of the spectrum is fairly simple. Provide the basic needs for the students and their families first and foremost. Outside the academic realm, this means providing parents with affordable daycare, health care, decent and affordable housing, and a living wage rather than a minimum wage. It means providing expanded free and reduced breakfasts and lunches for students. It means setting up a social safety net for the students and their families for when times are at their roughest. Yes, it means becoming a bit more Socialistic, but that is not a bad thing, except for those who do not believe in helping out their fellow human being.

It also means that teachers in these situations must be willing to build a rapport with their students. They must be willing to see them as unique individuals first and foremost, then as students. It means the teacher must be real with their students for they can sense a phony person and will shut down with them. I saw it happen. It means that the teacher must be flexible when assigning homework and maybe even willing to practice the idea of a flipped classroom where students do their homework at school and review for the next day’s lesson at home. I loved teaching at these schools, except for the administrators who did not espouse these ideas except when convenient for them.

The funny thing is that when I switched to teach at a wealthier, but rural high school, I found that the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum also suffers from negative academic achievement caused by poverty of privilege.

Poverty of privilege is when a child is raised to believe they are entitled to good grades based on their social status. This leads students of financial means to expect high marks because if they do not, then they can simply have their parents call the school and the teacher either forced out or the teacher to modify the assignment or even change the grade for them based on their status. (Other times, the leadership of the school also takes it upon themselves to change the grades after the teacher enters them into the electronic grading system. That happened at least once to me).

Fixing poverty of privilege is trickier. It involves the establishment of a rapport, but it also involves everyone from the administration of the school to the non-teaching staff to not allow those with privilege being able to use their wealth to push others around. I had a student who informed me that it did not matter what grade he received nor even if he passed, just so long as he got a minimum of a GED, his parents would buy him a house like they bought him a car. (A nice Mustang to boot).

Poverty at either end of the socioeconomic spectrum is the real reason why students do not achieve in school. Extremes of poverty and wealth cause a lack of motivation for academics. One needs basic needs met while the other needs limitations to what their means may achieve. Until educational reformers realize this, the American educational system will not improve regardless of how many teachers suffer or tests are given.

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