By Penny Smith
I wake up with coffee and NPR most mornings. In the fog before the coffee I faintly heard a short piece about a school that eschews disciplining their acting out impoverished students in favor of counseling, safe spaces, and understanding the trauma-induced toxic chemicals that may be swishing around their brains. The number of PTSD young people in this country, who live in dangerous neighborhoods and are sometimes as afraid of the police as they are of a drug dealer down the street, is already high and growing. You don’t take care of PTSD with suspensions and corporal punishment.
I’ve taught young people who were too tired to attend what was happening in the classroom or too hyperactive. I’ve taught children who acted out, were angry and/or depressed, or daydreaming. As an administrator, I’ve dealt with students who fight, curse, scream at their peers and adults, refuse to follow “simple instructions” (they are always simple instructions), and choose ignorance of school-approved curricula for working knowledge of street curricula.
Often, I’ve understood why they made the choices they did. Sometimes adults back them into a corner and a cornered child instinctively has two choices: fight or flight. And if you can’t sleep at home, because it’s too loud or too chaotic or there’s really no place to sleep, then putting your head on a desk isn’t always a bad decision. If, the previous night, a neighbor abused you, or her boyfriend shot your sister or your brother slugged you, then moodiness is an appropriate response. None of those conditions should give you much confidence that knowledge of algebra or the history of North Carolina or the past participle has any relevance in your life.
There’s a ton of evidence that the thing SAT scores correlate with best is money. The less you have, the more likely the score is below average. It may not be an accident that schools in poor neighborhoods, populated primarily by poor children, score less well on standardized tests than schools in prosperous suburbs, that they have more “discipline problems” and fail routinely to make what’s defined as satisfactory progress. (Yes, yes, I know that’s a generalization and that there are exceptions – but in this case the generalization corresponds to the research that says economically poor = a school performance disadvantage.)
Yet, I believe ability is evenly distributed. Ability is not divided by gender, by race, by nationality or by class. Opportunity, however, is not evenly distributed, even though some school critics seem to think it is. How do I tell the sixth grader who has just discovered that she’s pregnant to pay close attention to the joys of writing the perfect five paragraph essay? Or the sixth grader whose single mother attempted suicide in front of her, that she has no right to be angry? Or the children who are home from school, because they have no heat, hot water or clean clothes, that the attendance policy means they will be retained a grade, no matter what they know or don’t know? Or the seventh grader who couldn’t pay attention to the teacher, because his tooth was so abscessed that his jaw was almost twice its normal size?
To ensure that “no child [is] left behind,” we have instituted testing academies that specialize, not in education, but in successful test-taking. And to maximize the success of such test-taking, we encourage push-outs and institute “no excuses” discipline polices. We have made it easier for parents to opt out of the safe space that schools sometimes are and home school their children, occasionally with disastrous results for which we will all eventually pay. And we’ve decided to help some families with charter schools, which have become remarkably good at teaching poor children from stable homes as opposed to poor kids from homes and/or families in disarray. True, some of those charter schools do well, but on average, there is not much evidence of a seismic or even a modest shift in overall improvement.
My NPR spot highlighted a school that tried to maximize safe spaces and train teachers to consider alternatives to regular punishments. It was a school for keeping people engaged, rather than moving troublemakers out. That’s certainly one kind of school reform, although I would hope that most schools saw that as their task without needing additional training. Certainly, hiring good teachers is another one of the ways to maximize student achievement, although one would never know that given the current legislative habits of doubting them, underpaying them, denigrating them in public, and dismissing those who elect to work in challenging schools with challenging students, because those test scores didn’t show adequate improvement in a timely manner.
And there are a host of other things that research suggests help: lower class sizes, particularly in lower grades; knowledge of multiple learning styles and strategies for addressing them; jump starting formal education through quality pre-school programs; having multiple social services available in schools; knowing parents and working to engage them as much as possible in their child’s education; rethinking the school calendar and hours; sufficient instructional supplies; utilization of inquiry methods, particularly in STEM subjects – the list is long and each part of it may contribute a tiny piece to the Lake Woebegone dream of all children being above average.
However, I think that if people are serious about having the best possible schools for all our children, then they need to work toward the elimination of poverty. A whole lot of the chaos that leads to depressed, PTSD afflicted children comes from a lack of neighborhood stability. A whole lot of that instability comes from a lack of money.
The United States is the world’s largest economy, the economic king among developed countries; however, it has the most fragile of safety nets. Our wealth is unevenly distributed; we have the highest income inequality. We have the second highest poverty rate among rich nations, with nearly one in four American children living in that condition. Because of our history, poverty rates are also racially disproportionate, affecting one in three Black and Hispanic children.
Compounding that problem we have the highest rate of obesity, a sign of a poor diet, and, in spite of the money we spend on average for health, we are basically an unhealthy society compared to our economic peers. We have a miserable child mortality rate, live fewer years on average, and have relatively poor educational outcomes. We have an exceptionally high rate of childhood deaths due to intentional and unintentional injury. We invest among the least in infrastructure, a necessity for future economic and intellectual growth. We rank 36th in the world in access to clean water and sanitation. We do, applause line here, have the world’s largest and most expensively armed military.
In late 2017 Philip Alstdon, a United Nations expert on economic scarcity, spent ten days touring the United States. He concluded that our wealth, power and technology are not being used to address the needs of the 40 million people living in poverty here. “Contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.” One profound consequence, he claims, is the undermining of our democracy. Another is the criminalization of poverty. A third is the myth of unemployment; people may have jobs, but those jobs don’t pay a living wage. Despair is too often relieved and exacerbated by the availability and overuse of drugs. Privatization has proven to make some people very rich, but has worsened the condition of poor people. (Alstdon’s summary is an indictment of United States policies and their outcomes; in many ways it is a refutation of American exceptionalism. Google “Statement on Visit to the USA, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights” for the full report.)
Eliminate poverty and my guess is that we will come a long way toward eliminating our educational achievement gaps.