A heartfelt guest post from The Washington Post's Answer Sheet written by Brock Cohen about the REAL issue that holds back schools in closing the achievement gap.
This was written by Brock Cohen, a teacher and student advocate in the Los Angeles Unified School District who contends that we can no longer afford to trivialize the critical role that poverty plays in a child’s learning experiences – and that true school reform begins with social justice. Brock’s students were recently featured in an NPR piece that charts some of his students’ daily struggles as they pursue their education.
He starts off with hearts and flowers from NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan and even the President. That's all good and well but charters and TFA are just distractions.
What had grown increasingly clear to me was that my students’ academic struggles did not simply stem from inaction, ineffective parenting, drug use, or neglect. While these elements were usually present in various forms, or to greater or lesser degrees, they weren’t the root causes of their failure; they were the effects of poverty. What I’d learned in less than a semester of teaching was that poverty wasn’t merely a temporary, though unpleasant, condition — like a hangover or the sniffles. It was a debilitating, often generational, epidemic.
There are relatively few schools -traditionals and charters - who are making progress at closing this gap. To do that, you need what many of these students don't have - parents who are able to be present in their child's academic life. KIPP succeeds because it is able to find parents who are determined to get their child on track and find the discipline (and longer days) something that both the parents and KIPP believe will do the trick. But even with KIPP, many kids fall by the wayside. Their attrition rate is very high.
It is quite easy to talk about changes at the school level. It's easy to point the finger at teachers (although why it's just teachers and not administrators and school boards is a mystery).
It is VERY easy to say "have a 'no excuses' culture" at a school and that will do it. The realities, as Mr. Cohen points out, are quite different but we do not want to talk about those.
Despite, in many cases, being less than a school year away from graduation, many of my students were not doing – or even attempting to do – even the simplest assignments. And yet some of my most apathetic kids routinely offered to straighten up my cluttered desktop or sweep my classroom. What I was gradually seeing was that many of them wanted to take pride in doing something well; maybe they’d just surmised that academic success was too far beyond their grasp. I started to wonder if at least some of their apathy was actually a white flag being waved in the face of repeated failure.
Many parents were cobbling together livelihoods by working multiple low-wage jobs that often took them away from home for the critical late-afternoon and evening hours during which kids rely heavily on caregivers for guidance and discipline. Others were dealing with their own personal demons wrought by drugs, alcohol, or destructive relationships. Some were simply M.I.A., and I never found out why. Because many of my students were saddled with learning disabilities — a frequent characteristic among high-poverty populations of children — I attended scores of I.E.P. meetings in which my special needs students were left to discuss their challenges, progress, and goals without a caregiver in the room.
In education, there are choices to be made that can indeed move the needle of student achievement. Developing a collaborative model, for example, can lead to improvements in the skills and study habits of disadvantaged children. But closing the so-called achievement gap between rich and poor will first require Americans to recognize a far more uncomfortable reality: The policies employed to purportedly address the struggles of low-income children have ushered in a new era of school segregation. Claiming that poverty is no excuse for student failure trivializes the damage caused by years of actions and inactions that have widened the gaps between rich and poor communities. Good schools aren’t molded through harsh sanctions, private takeovers, or even soaring rhetoric. They emerge from healthy, stable communities. That is, they emerge from a commitment to justice.