Work On Poverty To Improve Schools

Poverty in Education

I have been writing recently about the cost of poverty to children’s learning. How can we expect schools to do their best when more than half of the students who attend these schools are on free and reduced lunch plans? Arriving hungry limits learning possibilities every time. Today I want to use the Learning Policy Insititute information to make the argument that despite our retreat from reforms started in the 1960s, we can do better, and we must do better, to help all students overcome their challenges and receive their rightful opportunity to learn. If we are to do better, it starts with poverty.

Today, more than half of children attending U.S. public schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—the highest percentage since the National Center for Education Statistics began tracking this figure decades ago. Furthermore, U.S. children living in poverty have a much weaker safety net than their peers in other industrialized countries, where universal health care, housing subsidies, and high-quality, universally available child care are the norm (Learning Policy Institute, 2018).

Investing in Testing Instead of Ready to Learn Resources

The last twenty years of education law has produced a stronger focus on testing student achievement in schools while ignoring the poverty from which they come. I think measuring student learning is very important, but I am not sure that standardized testing as currently organized really does that. Most importantly, why would we think we are measuring student learning when the test results do a better job of revealing student poverty?

Despite a single-minded focus on raising achievement and closing gaps during the No Child Left Behind era (from 2002 until 2015), many states focused on testing without investing in the resources needed to achieve higher standards. Investments in the education of students of color that characterized the school desegregation and finance reforms of the 1960s and ’70s have never been fully reestablished in the years since  (Learning Policy Institute, 2018).

We Must Do Better

In fact we have done better, in the past, after the Great Society programs helped us to engage in community supports for better learning. The sixties are often remembered for social upheaval but I remember them for a real effort to reach across the community to improve schools. Today’s blame for poor school performance ignores the real disconnect that schools are somehow separate from their communities. In fact, they are intimately connected to the communities around them through student demographics and overlapping culture. Schools alone cannot change our country. Communities and their schools with help from professionals who know what quality and equity really look like could really change our country for the better.

We can—and must—do better. To be sure, there are bright spots across the country, and many people and groups are working to change these realities through civic engagement and educational change. Hear more from leaders at our Kerner at 50 forum, and see evidence of what’s working in communities investing in early childhood educationeffective and equitably distributed teachers, more productive forms of accountabilitycommunity schools, and deeper learning for all students (Learning Policy Institute, 2018).

Right To Learn

So poverty and education are intimately linked, where the poverty of the mind is being starved by the poverty of the community. Making a test to measure student learning will need much improvement, given that current measurement techniques focus on standardization of learning, rather than the bias that each school contributes to that learning. It is not as simple as,”fix poverty and school scores will go up.” Standardized testing is reflective of the real inequity, the lack of quality and the bias of poverty that predict low test scores. We need to help students learn because it is their right to learn. When we get that right, we can also change the way we measure student learning—inventing new more accurate ways to measure the improvement of their minds

As a country, we must enter a new era. No society can thrive in a technological, knowledge-based economy by starving large segments of its population of learning. Instead, we must provide all of our children with what should be an unquestioned entitlement—a rich and inalienable right to learn (Learning Policy Institute, 2018).

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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