Science Opinion

We Can Make Schools Places Where Students Can Succeed No Matter What

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 16, 2015 7 min read
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Why haven’t schools been able to close the achievement gap and bring more students to be what has become today’s catch phrase...college and career ready? Perhaps, as debates rage about whether teachers should be accountable for students’ results as measured by tests, we need to consider that we are part of the great public system and within it there is no accountability. In the private sector if stocks plunge or market shares diminish, CEO’s and other find themselves separated from the corporation. But, in education ...as in other public sector domains...it is rare when student performance leads to a termination. Yet, even a ninety year old asks over breakfast this morning, why are children not doing well in school? She proceeds to tell us what Bill O’Reilly says and we are off into the abyss of perspective exchange between those who see the world so differently. How much parents, how much economy, how much teachers, how much leaders, how much resources for all involved, how much structure and values...

The embedded model is teacher holds the information, presents it to the students, the students are offered opportunity to practice with that information, and then an assessment reveals whether they have mastered the information or the concept. Some do, some don’t and that’s enough. Winners and losers begin very early. For a century and more, students have graduated from high school having traversed the hills and valleys, the forests and fields of schools, classrooms and teachers. They have passed the tests that are the gates to the next class or classroom and taken reports home at the end of the year. Many of them move on up; others fall away or behind.

There have been a plethora of talented researchers who have presented us with new ways to teach, to offer students new opportunities to learn and to perform their learning. And there are districts, schools, and classrooms that have tried mightily to embed the new theories and methods into their centuries old structures. But the national results have not changed. Cities continue to struggle with low graduation rates. Schools in the suburbs and in rural areas investigate their records past and the pockets of improvements and attribute causes when they can.

The other day in a health food store a parent was speaking to his child who was about 7 years old. “What would you like to drink?” “Could you go and pick the grapes while I order our lunch?” “Be sure to pick the ones that look the best, no bruises, and are bright in color.” To Bill O’Reilly’s point, not all children go to health food stores with their parent. Not all children are given choices and guidance in how to make the best ones. The education of this child continues beyond the classroom in ways that her classmates may not experience.

The Playing Field Is Not Level
We use shorthand to speak about the challenges schools face. Poverty is one of those shorthand terms. Poverty presents a complex set of limits and challenges that children bring with them into their classrooms. Language and vocabulary are only part of the list of limiting factors. Their parents are survivors. We are learning more about the affects survivorship has upon people as we learn about more people who act out or even hurt themselves because of the stress of not being able to manage their problems. A child living in poverty may not even see the inside of a health food store, much less be asked to determine which grapes are the ones with the bright color and no bruises. A child living in poverty may only be accompanying their parent or guardian to the store because they are on their way back from a visit to a clinic where after hours of waiting, they finally were able to have the child evaluated. The school had been asking that this happen for the past months. In this case, the parent may very well have missed a day of work and the trip to the grocery store is burdened with guilt and sadness that they can not buy the food they want for their family, and the have to make due with the amount of money they have to spend. No time to think about how to talk and connect with the child with an ever-increasing vocabulary or ask thought provoking questions. Nor for the parent who cannot afford to take their child to visit an incarcerated parent. There is a saying, “When a person gets sentenced to prison, the whole family serves the time.” What may be even worse, it may be a single parent who is incarcerated, and a relative or a foster parent may not have the ability to bring the child to see his or her only parent. How does that feel to a little one?

According to Rutgers University’s National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated, one in 28 children have an incarcerated parent. And they report that

...approximately half of children with incarcerated parents are under ten years old...Parental incarceration is now recognized as an “adverse childhood experience” (ACE); it is distinguished from other adverse childhood experiences by the unique combination of trauma, shame, and stigma.

That child in the health food store may very well be sitting in class next to a child who is experiencing “trauma, shame, and stigma” and who is separated from their parent. It is difficult as educators to think about this world because we too are the ones who may be in that health food store. Our world is not the one in which any of our students live. It must be the one in which all of our children live. Even the most learned among us can only understand in our minds what this experience of poverty does to children and families. Yet, how many with whom we enter this conversation say, “Well, I grew up poor and look where I am.” So, we hold the question...is growing up poor today different from what it was in the 1900’s?

What Can Schools Do?
Schools alone cannot counter the effects of poverty on learning. We need a society that is dedicated to the idea that as a society we can clear the path from poverty to the middle class. We need for entry-level jobs that allow families to take a step out of poverty. We need social services and mental health professionals surrounding those families and children. We need laws changed. We need housing regulations that allow for people living in poverty to live in better housing. And, yes, we need those in poverty to contribute initiative and a work ethic and a desire for education.

In the meantime, schools can do something...change the structure in which teaching and learning takes place so the methods and practices that are known to work CAN level the playing field. Engaging students in learning, actively, works for all students. It is known to our readers that we believe deeply that a shift to a STEM based learning environment holds a key. But even if the word STEM is not one you feel comfortable with, think of it this way...the structure of schools, centuries old, hasn’t made much of a difference. If schools and classrooms were structured in ways that captured the attention of children with problems and projects that required critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity, the barriers for those less prepared will be lowered. An invitation to the learning would be less dependent on what skills are lacking and more dependent on what skills are present.

Change is messy. Turning a traditional lesson on addition, in elementary school, or solving for “x” in middle schools or uncovering the cause of the WWI in high school takes time, learning, experimentation, some failure, reflection, and re-trying. Teachers need time to learn, share, experiment, and learn some more. This environment must be built, protected, and maintained by a leader who is trusted.

While Changing the Structure, Reach More Parents
While we are sure of the societal responsibilities for combating the limiting factors poverty presents, schools can lead the way by doing their part. As we can lead the way by changing the structure of teaching and learning, getting the parents into schools as invited partners is also key. Think about the leadership of David Hagstrom. The former principal of the Denali Elementary School in Fairbanks, Alaska wrote From Outrageous to Inspired: How to build a Community of Leaders in our Schools. In it, he relates the transformative power of “honoring the people” and exploring what parents and teachers want for their children. Granted its now a decade or so old, but it is well worth summer reading if we want to open the doors to the school...and create success...for all our students...with no excuses.

Hagstrom, D. (2004). From Outrageous to Inspired: How to build a Community of Leaders in our Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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