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Wendy Lecker, an experienced civil rights attorney in New York and Connecticut, writes here about the enormous stresses under which low-income children live and how they impair children’s ability to learn.
A new UCLA report centers on those out-of-school factors that interfere with learning. The report, titled “It’s About Time,” found that community stressors such as economic distress, hunger, lack of medical care, family problems, unstable housing and violence, result in lost learning time three times as often in high poverty schools as in low poverty schools.
While the report focuses on California, I have heard identical stories from teachers, principals and district officials in Connecticut and New York. Children in impoverished districts often arrive at school hungry, without coats, socks or with broken glasses. High school students miss the first few periods of each school day because they must ensure their younger siblings get to school safely. Children bring to school the instability they experience in their lives.
These are not isolated stories. These are the barriers many poor children encounter every day when they try to learn, and teachers encounter when they try to teach. Before a child can focus on learning, she needs to be fed and clothed and have a way to deal with any trauma she may have experienced the night before. This is why social workers, behavioral specialists, psychologists, counselors and other therapists are essential educational resources. “Support staff” is a misnomer.
In the current fevered atmosphere, teachers are blamed for the low scores of their students who live in poverty; common sense has gone out the window. It takes remarkable dedication to teach in schools where children are burdened by poverty, where resources are often inadequate, where the children come to school without coats and miss school because of illness.
One has to wonder why the Obama administration pushes policies that not only fail to correct the inequalities in educational resources, but instead exacerbate them.
The UCLA report revealed that poor schools lose three times more instructional days than low poverty schools to standardized testing and test prep — more than four weeks of instructional time.
It is now well-established that standardized tests do not improve learning, and narrow a school’s curriculum. It is also well-known that yearly testing is unnecessary, since a child who passes a test one year is overwhelmingly likely to pass the next.
Yet U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan clings to the faulty conviction that children must suffer through standardized tests every year so that children “do not fall through the cracks.” How absurd. Teachers know which children are struggling academically.
If policymakers were truly concerned with children falling through the cracks, they would make sure that every school had a safety net to catch them. Too often, our neediest children must face life’s harshest realities. It is time politicians stop ignoring how those realities impact our schools.