NPR reporter Eric Westervelt’s recent report on four teachers who gave up their jobs after attaining a continuing contract illustrates everything that’s wrong with the way public schools are operating today and underscores the fact that the teachers who leave the profession are not those who struggle. On the contrary, Westervelt’s sampling indicates that teachers leave out of frustration about the lack of resources, the emphasis on testing, the toxic environment resulting from the anti-union legislation in many states, and– most sadly, because there is an emphasis on promoting students to the next “grade level” even if they aren’t actually learning the material presented in the classroom.
In each of these cases, the desire to run schools-like-a-business is driving teachers out of the profession. Schools emphasize testing and promotion because the metrics used to determine success are simple and cheap. Promotion rates and test scores, neither of which require mastery of the material by the students, are easy for the public to understand, inexpensive to calculate, and lend themselves to ranking and rating schools and— when invalid algorithms are used— teachers. Schools batch students in “grade levels” based on age and expect them to advance in lockstep through those “grade levels” because that’s the way a product that is manufactured progresses through a manufacturing process. Teachers are discouraged from being in unions and schools are starved of resources because government officials want to limit the costs to taxpayers in the same way that Walmart, for example, strives to limit overhead. The “overpaid teacher” meme is so ingrained today that asking teachers to pay for resources does not seem unfair to “cash-strapped-and-overburdened” taxpayers. The result, as Linda Darling Hammond states in Westervelt’s article, is “Teachers who are well prepared leave at more than two times lower rates than teachers who are not fully prepared”. A vicious circle is in place, especially in those districts with the tightest budgets— the districts serving the children with the greatest needs. Changing this vicious circle will be difficult. It will require the public to see the flaws in the “business model” and the merits of a developmental approach toward teaching and learning. It will require the public to have faith in “secular government schools” instead of schools operated by the “efficient” business sector or religiously affiliated schools. It will require a realization that a quality education, like any quality product, costs more than a shabby product. And it will require a willingness for affluent parents who understand all of this to be willing to pay higher taxes to help their less advantaged counterparts. Those who can afford high priced homes in districts that operate schools with robust programs and who pay teachers well will need to help out those children who had the bad luck to be born into families that struggle economically. When the minds and hearts of the public change, public schools can change for the better as well…. but it will require time, energy, and resources to effect that change.
An essay by Mike Jackson in the Daily Beast has me re-thinking my stance on private donations to public schools. He opens his essay with a startling statistic: 963,000 millionaires reside in New York City! Mr. Jackson contends that asking these millionaires to pay higher taxes to underwrite public education is a bad idea because there is no way public schools could ever raise enough taxes to match the amount spent in private schools. He writes:
…Some activists and educators believe that private support for public schools isn’t “progressive.” They believe that the mere mention of the words “external” or “private” are threats to teachers and insults their understanding of the role that poverty plays in the existence of the achievement gap. In their view, the only ideologically pure way to improve public education is by demanding more public funds.
I believe there’s a practical problem with this approach. This year, the New York City Department of Education will spend $23 billion to serve just over one million students, translating to $23,000 per student. That’s roughly 25 percent of the entire New York City budget, and it’s unrealistic to think there will be the political will to raise taxes enough or cut other areas sufficiently to allow for a doubling of the education funding.
That’s likely what it would take to achieve something close to parity with private schools. At many private boarding schools, tuition now regularly exceeds $58,000 per year. Their boards then direct additional funds annually from multimillion-dollar endowments to offer scholarships to low income students.
Instead, he suggests that some of these millionaires become engaged with a particular public school by committing TIME in addition to MONEY and, in doing so, gain a better understanding of the challenges urban youngsters encounter day-in-and-day-out. That engagement, in turn, might lead the engaged millionaire to make contributions to their adopted public school in the same way an affluent parent makes donations to their child’s PTO. As Mr. Jackson notes:
The difference isn’t just money—it’s the culture of support surrounding the students. Most urban, lower-income parents don’t have the means, the time, or in some cases the education to advocate for their children in the same way a private school’s PTA can. And public schools don’t have individual boards of trustees to advocate for them.
As one of those “ideological purists” who sees the need for moe funding for schools across the board, I am opposed to funding schemes that allocate equal (and and often low) funding levels to all schools in the name of equity and then allow affluent schools to raise millions from their parents. This model DOES undercut funding equity and DOES undercut the notion of equitable opportunity for all students. But as a pragmatist, I find Mr. Jackson’s ideas appealing. In his concluding paragraphs, he notes that there are “…500 millionaires in NYC for each of its 1,856 public schools” and imagines what it would be like for children at those schools if 500 volunteers showed up at an urban school in an under-served neighborhood to help kids write better college essays. He concludes with this heartening idea:
Education reform has barely been a topic of conversation in the general election, let alone the presidential debates. But it’s one of the few areas where there is a proven path for transcending the divisiveness that characterizes contemporary politics while making measurable progress in closing the income gap and achievement gap, one person at a time.
Mr. Jackson, unlike some of his wealthy counterparts, acknowledges that money DOES matter, and also understands that the “culture of support” matters even more. His form of reform makes sense… there must be a way some imaginative and creative politician in NYS or NYC could help Mr. Jackson spread this idea around.
The Wall Street Journal today reported that the social security tax “cap” from its current level of $118,500 to $127,200. It’s about time! As the NYTimes noted in an editorial on the difference between the candidate’s positions on this issue, In recent decades, “…the wage ceiling has not kept up with the income gains of high earners; if it had, it would be about $250,000 today.” And here’s a mathematical reality: someone who makes a billion dollars a year makes $2,739,726 a DAY…. or over $340,000 per HOUR if they worked an 8 hour day or just over $170,000 per HOUR if they worked 16 hours every day of the year… In effect after working just under an hour a billionaire hits the cap on social security… that is IF the billionaire even works in the sense that, say, a school teacher works…. But, according to Fox news and most Republicans we don’t want to get into this argument because it might start a class war… better we should argue about race, transgender bathrooms, and the infidelities of candidates… MAYBE in the last debate and in the final weeks of this campaign we will get into a substantive analysis of the economy and the wealth disparity that is making a mockery of the notion that everyone has an equal opportunity for success in this country… or maybe that unicorn will come to my bird feeder…
Earlier this week Nation writer Michele Chen posted an article reporting on the finding that 6,800,000 American teenagers are “food insecure”. Surveys conducted by the Urban Institute indicate that millions of youngsters between the ages of 10 and 17 cannot secure adequate food on a daily basis, a situation that is difficult to fathom for the school “reformers” who assume that all children’s basic needs are being met and politicians who somehow think that cutting welfare for adults has no impact on children and families.
Ms. Chen describes how food deprived teenagers cope with their hunger… and it isn’t a pretty picture. Some sacrifice eating well to make sure their longer siblings get sufficient food, and some seek employment that takes away from their ability to participate in school activities or study. Others, though, engage in activities like dumpster diving and petty theft. And still others engage in serious crimes, selling their bodies to adults or selling drugs to peers.
Ms. Chen reports the role schools could play in this problem, especially in those cases where criminal behavior is rooted in the lack of predictable food:
Schools and law enforcement authorities, researchers say, could provide those who run afoul of the law with supportive outreach instead of arrest and detention, to avoid pushing them into the racially segregated school-to-prison-pipeline. For sexually exploited girls, especially, authorities “should be trained to recognize the trauma experienced by girls who are sexually exploited and provide counseling or referrals rather than treating them like offenders.”
But in the end, schools can only do so much. They can offer free or reduced meals when school is in session and could be hubs for services. But in the end, the problem of food insecurity for families can only be addressed at a higher level:
A deprived adolescence, however, is a window into a family affair, so government intervention should address the poverty of the whole household.Parents need living wage jobs and basic social assistance to cover day-to-day needs. Since food insecurity is often linked to housing instability, aid programs such as rental subsidies would help alleviate immediate financial pressures so families do not have to choose between a stocked pantry and monthly rent.
Hunger in adolescence marks a demographic turning point for the post-welfare-reform generation, reflecting two decades of government shoving poor parents off of federal benefits and into low-wage jobs and “personal responsibility.” The results of those Clinton-era policies are embodied in the empty stomachs of America’s hungry teenagers, who display just how much responsibility they shoulder, with no choice but to scrounge and hustle to survive. But teenagers should have more to dream about today than a hot meal tomorrow.
When teenagers show up for school with empty stomachs it is hard to get them motivated to pass a test… but if you are a “reformer” if you see a school full of hungry children doing poorly on a test you believe the school and the teachers should be held accountable and the solution is to fire the teachers, close that school, and open a new one that offers shareholders an opportunity to make a profit. Maybe the better solution would be to fill the stomachs of the children so they can dream about more than a hot meal.
Neuroscience Demonstrating What We Already Know: Poverty Impacts Learning and Early Intervention is Essential
A cover story by Mike Kemp in Newsweek earlier this month reported on the findings of neuroscience researchers in CA who found that “…children with parents who had lower incomes had reduced brain surface areas in comparison to children from families bringing home $150,000 or more a year.” Given that test results have manifested this for decades, the results are unsurprising. But here’s what researchers MAY be able to impress on policy-makers IF the policy-makers are swayed by science:
“We have [long] known about the social class differences in health and learning outcomes,” says Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. But neuroscience has now linked the environment, behavior and brain activity—and that could lead to a stunning overhaul of both educational and social policies, like rethinking Head Start–style programs that have traditionally emphasized early literacy. New approaches, he says, could focus on social and emotional development as well, since science now tells us that relationships and interactions with the environment sculpt the areas of the brain that control behavior (like the ability to concentrate), which also can affect academic achievement (like learning to read). “We are living in a revolution in biology now,” Shonkoff says, one in which new findings are finally giving us a real understanding of the interaction between nature and nurture.
For decades educators have attempted to offset the effects of poverty by immersing disadvantaged children with books and manipulative and engaging them in intellectual activities analogous to those that more affluent children experience on a daily basis. But researchers are finding that the intellectual stimulation is less important that the social and emotional stimulation. After recounting the trend toward oversimplification of the research findings, Mike Kemp concludes with this potential means of addressing the impacts of poverty on the development of a child’s brain:
Schools could add social and emotional learning courses to their elementary through high school curricula, designed to help children recognize and pay attention to their feelings, especially while coping with trauma and stress. Such courses could become requirements, like reading and math. That would require a massive re-evaluation of the priorities of our educational and development institutions—and some way of funding any new programs and tools deemed necessary.
Getting that to happen could take the kind of power wielded by Congress, local governments, school boards or the U.S. legal system. In 2013, Clancy Blair of the New York University Neuroscience and Education Lab, led a study that found the time a child spent in poverty, and in a household filled with chaos, was significantly related to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Blair says similar findings could be leveraged the way research in the past linked detrimental health outcomes to tobacco, sugar-filled drinks and junk food, and ultimately changed policies and regulation of those industries. Similarly, findings like those in Blair’s study could be used support legislation or even a landmark lawsuit targeting overcrowded living conditions, or unaffordable housing and child care.
Other systems that reinforce the cycle of poverty—inferior schools and community infrastructure; poorly protected neighborhoods and unchecked child abuse; environmental pollution; or lack of health care, public transportation and green space—could face legal challenges or new laws.
As one who is swayed by research findings and who believes that public education can make a difference, I would readily support any legislation that addressed the findings of researchers like Clancy Blair. But as one who witnesses legislators who deny climate change, who demonize teachers instead of making investments of any kind in public schools, and who want cheap, fast, and easy fixes to the complicated problems cited in this article, I fear that nothing will happen…. and the results of doing nothing will be an increase in the kind of heartless children like those described at the beginning of the article: ones who can witness a videotape of Malala Yousafzai and feel “nothing”. If we spend nothing on the improvement of social development we will get children who feel nothing.
Two newspaper articles, one in the New York Times and another in the Valley News in Lebanon, NH, tout recent court rulings that flag inequities in funding… but each ruling has inherent problems and neither is likely to result in changes any time soon.
In the NYTimes article Elizabeth Harris reports that Connecticut Judge Thomas Moukawsher of State Superior Court in Hartford said that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty” to give all children an adequate education. His lengthy decision was rendered in response to a suit filed in 2005— over ten years ago— and includes directives to comprehensively review and overhaul the entire Connecticut education system. His sweeping decision effectively acknowledges that while funding equity is clearly required, improvements in the quality of teaching and increased accountability are equally important. After citing the gross inequities in Connecticut school districts, he calls for “…the attorney general’s office to submit plans within 180 days to fix the areas he had found deficient.” As Ms. Harris notes, “It was not immediately clear who might draw up the proposals or whether the state would appeal the decision.”
Here’s my take on what will happen in Connecticut: 180 days will pass and no plans will be developed and before the 180 days is up the decision will be appealed. Another possibility is that Governor Malloy, a neoliberal “reformer”, will use this as a path for him to introduce privatized deregulated schools into the 30 drastically underfunded districts. Either way, after 180 days pass another school year will be lost making it exactly 12 years between the filing of the lawsuit and any change in the ways schools are funded in Connecticut: exactly the time it takes for a student to progress through school. The bottom line: another generation of children raised in poverty will be lost.
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire Valley News reporter Tim Camerato reported that a Judge ruled in favor of plaintiffs from several districts who claimed that the state shortchanged them in the funding of their schools. He writes:
As part of New Hampshire’s constitutional obligation to provide every child with an adequate education, the state funds are based on a formula that considers a district’s student enrollment, the number of children using free and reduced lunch programs, those in English as a second language classes and special education programs, said Caitlin Davis, an internal auditor at the state Department of Education.
Since 2009, each district’s adequacy aid also has been subject to a cap based on a percentage of what the district received in previous years.
Since 2012, the cap on the city of Dover, N.H., short-changed the Seacoast community by more than $7 million and left other communities without $79 million in necessary funding, according to the city’s lawsuit against the state.
In its lawsuit, Dover argued the cap violated the New Hampshire constitution, which previous court rulings have determined calls for state funding of education. Dover also wanted the state to repay all of the money lost to each affected community.
Judge Brian Tucker ruled in the city’s favor on the first argument, but said school districts only are able to collect on the 2016 fiscal year because the money needed to reimburse school districts for previous fiscal years hasn’t been raised.
Having worked in New Hampshire in the 1980s and again in the 2000s I am painfully aware of the New Hampshire legislatures reluctance to meet court mandates. The original lawsuits regarding funding inequities were filed in the 1980s and when they were inadequately addressed another set of suits were filed in the early 2000s. The adequacy aid referenced in Mr. Camerato’s article was the latest effort to address inequity and it, too, has fallen short of the mark because it was insufficiently funded. Will this suit solve the problem? Probably not:
The affected Upper Valley school districts celebrated the decision, but were cautious of a possible appeal.
As intervenors in the case, House Speaker Shawn Jasper and Senate President Chuck Morse, both Republicans, can pursue further court action.
“Thinking that this ruling may be appealed, it could be a while before we know if this (reimbursement) will actually happen or not for Grantham,” Superintendent Jacqueline Guillette said in an email on Wednesday. “In the meantime, we will be working with our attorney to review the judge’s ruling and to explore all options that the (School Board) will have should Grantham receive this money.”
Like the children raised in poverty in Connecticut, New Hampshire’s poor children will need to wait a little bit longer to see if something can be worked out…. Sadly, children raised in poverty in over 40 other states will also be waiting….