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Why Education Policy Should Be Made By Those With Real Life Classroom Experience

Long before I stood in front of a classroom as a teacher, I learned from my mother how poverty frustrates the very best efforts of a dedicated teacher. She was a New York City public school teacher who taught elementary school in the East New York/Bushwick section of Brooklyn during the 1960s and 1970s. One year, she had a fifth grade which experienced close to a 90% turnover. There were some 30 odd students on register, and during the couse of the school year, there were over 30 discharges and new admits. Some students came and went in the middle of the year, in a double turnover, but there were literally only a handful of students who made it from September through June. In other years she taught, the problem was only a little less dramatic.

Social scientists call this phenomenon ‘transience.’ Poor people live from day to day and week to week, from cheque to cheque, and are therefore constantly on the move. Increased rent they can no longer afford, lost jobs, evictions, condemnations of the building in which they lived, family break-ups, deportation and a whole host of other reasons connected to their economic conditions: all of these lead to transience.

Teachers who have worked in schools serving communities with high rates of poverty know this reality well. They understand that even when they find ways to overcome some of the myriad of other disadvantages a young person living in poverty faces when it comes to schooling, they can’t teach students who are not there, and they can’t get much educational traction if they only see a child for a couple of months during the school year.

Much has been made in recent times of the ‘summer’ advantage middle class and wealthy students have, as their families ensure that their learning continues throughout the summer vacation. But truth be told, this advantage extends well into the regular school year. The biggest advantage that students from middle class and wealthy backgrounds have is regular, uninterrupted schooling. All too many students living in poverty simply do not have the benefit of regular schooling. Their education is disrupted, again and again and again.

Like poverty itself, transience is not a natural condition: human beings are not by nature a nomadic species. It is a man made artifact, easily abated in the twenty-first century with the right social and economic policies. Its rate is inversely proportional, to cite the most obvious relationship, with the stock of quality housing for low income people: the greater the stock, the less the transience. The same could be said for creating living wage jobs for low income people. Some educational effects of poverty, such as the physiological problems associated with lead poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome and low birth weights, can not be undone, once they have occurred. But transience is a problem that can be addressed at any time, with the provision of quality, low income housing and living wage employment. All that is wanting is the political will.

Unfortunately, teachers are far removed from the power centers that determine the public policies impacting on transience among the poor. We deal with the effects, while our voices go unheeded on the causes. Those who do possess the ability to have a real impact — elected officials, policy think tanks, media pundits — generally pay little attention to what we say.

Indeed, there seems to be an entire class of education pundits, unified by never having actually taught young people living in poverty, who seem intent upon dismissing any discussion of the effects of poverty upon education and educational opportunity, and of denying the importance of social and economic anti-poverty policies for providing all Americans with equal opportunities. Any discussion of the effects of poverty is immediately condemned as alibis for the failure of schools serving young people living in poverty.

The latest manifestation of this approach appeared with the knee-jerk responses [see here, here and here] to yesterday’s New York Times education column, penned by Diana Jean Schemo. The mere mention of Richard Rothstein’s Class and Schools seems to be a lightening rod for this sort of criticism, simply because Rothstein makes a powerful argument that the promise of equal opportunity for the poor can only be met by a combination of educational reform AND anti-poverty economic and social policies. We are inclined to agree with Julie at the School of Blog, that there is little evidence that most of these critics even took the time to read Rothstein. [“I heard him say…”, the defense offered by one of Julie’s accused in the School Of Blog comments, is an awfully weak form of hearsay argument when there is an entire book to quote. Of course, when you quote a book someone might check and see if your evidence really supports your claims.]

Teachers know all too well when schools fall short of the promise we make to every young person, but especially to youth living in poverty, that education is the pathway to a better life, and we will be unsparing in our criticisms of those shortcomings. But we also know when government and society fail in their responsibility to address the conditions of poverty that hamper and hinder education. And we are not prepared to be silent about either failure.



  • 1 xkaydet65
    · Aug 12, 2006 at 3:09 pm

    The problems with Schemo’s article and the responses to it are the true third rail of American politics. Never has education been able to address the problems caused by poverty or lack of opportunity. Those who cite the success stories of the immigrants neglect the stories of the 95% who did not become Mario Cuomo or Isidor Isaac Rabi, to name two oft cited examples.

    We lament the fifty percent graduation rate in NYC schools, but we choose not to remember when that rate was in the teens. The true transforming event in education was WWII. The GI bill with its college grants,its FHA loans and even the 52/20 club when combined with post war prosperity gave impetus to educational transformation. What mattered was not affluence, but the existence of a dependable job and a dependable income. This gave hope among parents that their children might do better and made educational success a goal. The success of working class men in colleges designed for the elite, through the GI Bill, gave proof that a college education was a reachable and desirable goal. and economic stability created the foundation for this success.

    While the GI Bill and FHa programs were surely the work of government, neither was thought a handout by anyone. They were duly earned rewards. The economic stabilty came not from government largesse, but from the economic expansion fueled by the forced savings of WWII. It was a surprise to many, particularly on the left of the spectrum from New Dealers to our Stalinist opponents who expected a renewal of the Depression.

    The Baby Boomers who came of age in the 60s and 70s were generally the first in their families to go to college, but they grew up with an expectation that they would achieve greater educational levels than their parents.

    Today we see children of immigrants, who create stability through hard work in economic arenas abandoned by Americans, demanding their kids succeed in school and reaching for the academic stars in their expectations. They start out in poverty, but are determined to do something about it. They bring and improve upon a social and economic stability that cannot be recreated by government fiat or spending.

    As educators there is little we can do to undo the damage that comes from an unstable background.What we can do is recognize this instability and not try to create a euphemized vocabulary to describe it. What we can do is demand as much excellence as we can and praise every success achieved, not just to the kids, but to their families. What we can do, within education law, is demand the accountability of familes in the education of their children. We will need money for smaller classes, greater intervention mechanisms, and excellent teachers.We may also need to practice triage. Knowing how and when is the true question here since no matter how much we spend, money does not equal achievement. If it did the trillions we have spent as a nation since the start of the War on Poverty would have rendered this discussion moot.

  • 2 jd2718
    · Aug 13, 2006 at 9:25 pm

    Very interesting post and discussion. Careful when straying into other disciplines, though. Humans certainly are by nature (probably seasonally) nomadic. It’s only with the advent of farming that we form relatively permanent settlements (iow, roughly the last 10,000 years in parts of the Middle East, less elsewhere, out of about 120,000 years of anatomically modern humans with language).

    Back to your point, the transience in poor rural counties north and west of the five boroughs is often just as dramatic as what we can see in Brooklyn and the Bronx.