Why School Reform Can't Ignore Poverty's Toll

By Valerie Strauss

Some school reformers are fond of saying that "great teaching" can overcome the effects of living poverty on children, and that those people (me included) who insist that poverty matters are only supporting the status quo.

The critics of school reform that I know are hardly happy with the status quo, nor do they believe that poverty must be eliminated for public schools to be improved.

The bottom line is that pushing school reforms that are obsessed with standardized test scores and do nothing to address the emotional, physical and social needs of needy children are bound to fail.

The following piece speaks of the real toll that living in poverty takes on children. It was written by Marcus D. Pohlmann, a professor of political science at Rhodes College in Memphis who has written extensively on race and poverty in Memphis.

By Marcus D. Pohlmann

Like most urban systems, Memphis City Schools have demonstrated the kind of achievement numbers that keep school reformers up at night. One in three students fail to graduate, and those who continue remain far behind by all achievement measures. Just 4 percent of seniors score well enough on entrance exams to qualify to take college-level courses without remedial work.

In films like "Waiting for Superman" and books like "Class Warfare," teachers and teacher unions are lambasted. The mandates of "No Child Left Behind" legislation also have meant numerous firings and re-assignments when students fail to make "adequate yearly progress."

Yes, blaming the teaching profession is in vogue, but lurking beneath failure is a full array of social and economic problems, not only in my city, but in major metropolitan areas from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles.

Here in Memphis, the nation’s poorest metropolitan area, 60 percent of children live with a single parent and roughly three in four qualify for federally subsidized school meals. As in other poor urban neighborhoods, they start school academically two years behind other children and are less than half as likely to achieve proficiency throughout their school years. Nationally, race and poverty combine to bar all but 1 percent of African-American students from the poorest households from attending college full time.

Poverty increases family stress, leads to poor nutrition and medical care, and, importantly, means children are talked to less and end up with vocabularies that are about half that of middle-class children. Research suggests that the first years shape a child’s capacity to learn. Science tells us that it is essential to brain development that babies are spoken to, read to, cuddled, and allowed to engage in physical play. National Institute of Health studies have indicated the foundations necessary for higher learning — working memory, vocabulary, spatial recognition, reasoning, and calculation skills — are set by the time a child reaches puberty.

Children in poverty move from place to place, often several times in a year. There are schools in which three out of four Memphis children "churn," which means they start at a certain school but will not be there by year’s end. At nearby Cherokee Elementary, 85 percent of the children live in poverty and one in four will transfer during the year.

Students come to school unbathed, inadequately clothed, and without books. Often, a parent is incarcerated, or otherwise not present. Many are raised by aunts barely out of their teens, or grandmothers who have watched a family disintegrate from a collective inability to fight the powerful currents of poverty.

In schools like Cherokee, you won’t find an active PTA, and it is not unusual for only one or two parents out of 20 to turn up for parent-teacher conferences.

Research has shown that high-quality, intensive early education helps prepare students intellectually and socially, and seems to improve academic success, reduce dropout rates, and reduce the need for special education programs and grade repetition. Such programs also can increase the likelihood that students will pursue higher education or training, which translates into reduced delinquency, arrests, teen pregnancy, and welfare reliance. The gains have been particularly noticeable in students from disadvantaged backgrounds who enter such programs by age two.

Through the 18th birthday, the average child will spend less than 9 percent of life in school. That leaves most education occurring outside the schoolhouse. A poll of kindergarten teachers showed that their classrooms would improve if all families had access to quality pre-kindergarten programs.

The bipartisan New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce has recommended that public education begin at age 3 for American students. And studies show that the best early childhood programs are staffed by teachers with college degrees and early education certification, offer developmentally appropriate education, include a focus on language development and comprehensive services such as meals and health and developmental screenings and encourage parental involvement.

We should indeed fire those beaten-down tenured teachers who have given up and are slacking. But the dozens of Memphis public school teachers I have met over the past several years are serious, dedicated teachers who care about their students, take too much work home, and spent money out of their own pockets on teaching supplies.

I have no doubt there are many such dedicated teachers in every American inner city. We risk driving them away by the current wave of attacks. And it doesn’t help that teachers are required to take up to six years of post-secondary education only to start teaching for less than $50,000 per year.

Before we throw quality public school teachers under the school reform bus, it would seem far wiser to first fully explore ways of bringing them students prepared to learn. It makes much more sense to support Early Head Start and other programs with proven track records.

Valerie Strauss is an Education Writer for The Washington Post. This article was originally posted to The Answer Sheet blog on October 8, 2011.

Marcus D. Pohlmann is a professor of Political Science for Rhodes College.