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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It's true, but is it the whole story?

“No relationship exists between poverty and academic ability."

That astute observation was made recently to Economics Arkansas by no other than Ray Simon, former director of the Arkansas Department of Education and then Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education in the younger George Bush's administration.

It's a comment that makes me cheer. But, now, it also makes me think.

No doubt in my mind, poverty truly has nothing to do with ability. (Neither does the color of a child's skin, the language a child speaks or where a child is born.)

I can't begin to count the number of times -- both as a public school parent and as a former ADE employee -- I've cringed when I've heard educators try to explain away students' (and schools') poor performance because of the level of poverty in the home or the community.

As a public school system, we have to rise above the challenges and educate children hindered by the blows of poverty to the same level as their more affluent classmates. Case closed.

Until, for me, now.

Upon reading the broader context of Mr. Simon's talk -- good teachers matter and bad teachers aren't just unfortunate personnel, they're actually harmful to students -- I started feeling uncomfortable with my former certainties.

Don't get me wrong. I get that teachers are THE most important element in concocting a quality education. And, as a society, we still haven't realized that to get the best people in the classroom -- those who are more likely to graduate in the top-third of their college classes as opposed the bottom third -- we have to pay them more, both in terms of moolah and respect.

But I also fear that, in trying to right a simple wrong, we are being just as simplistic in placing so much of the responsibility on teachers.

After all, research shows that:
  • Children from poorer families are much more likely to start school knowing thousands of fewer words than their middle- and upper-class counterparts.
  • Children from poorer families lose much more of their learning over the summers because they don't have access to the same enrichment opportunities.
  • Children from poorer families are more likely to come to school hungry and/or to eat less nutritionally balanced meals. Hunger directly affects the ability to concentrate and learn.
These are just a few examples of how poverty walks right into the classroom with the students' whose young lives it claims.  By placing all these challenges at the feet of teachers alone, aren't we taking just as simplistic approach as educators who blame lack of achievement all on poverty?

As a community of educators, parents, businesspeople and students, we have to realize the negative effects poverty has on learning is a broad, systemic problem. So in addition to great teachers, we have to supply superb pre-school opportunities, offer quality summer enrichment programs, make sure children have access to food, provide job training for parents and find ways to combat myriad other ill-effects of poverty.

The reason Arkansas's education reforms of the last decade were so successful is they approached the whole spectrum of needs of the education system. All the more reason to keep those reforms in place, and, indeed, find meaningful policies that broaden their scope from the classroom and school building to the broader community.

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