Exploding Inequality and Poverty: We Got the “Failing” Schools Narrative Wrong and Failed to See the Real Problem

Two articles published this week make interesting companions.

The first is Jack Schneider’s post—published in the Washington Post as part of Valerie Strauss’s column: How Are America’s Public Schools Really Doing?  Schneider, of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, explores the fact that widespread public perception of America’s public education system tanked after No Child Left Behind labeled an ever-increasing number of schools as failing every year.  So-called failing schools were the ones that couldn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress on what we now know was a crazy and unrealistic timeline.  It became apparent, as the 2014 deadline approached when all public schools were supposed to make every child proficient or be labeled “failing,” that almost every school in America would have been received the label except that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education began granting the states waivers from what had become a ridiculous expectation.

Schneider describes what became a widely believed narrative: “(T)he emergence of this popular belief (in the failure of our schools) may illustrate the triumph of rhetoric rather than an actual shift in school quality… New lows were established in 2007 and 2008, as the failures of No Child Left Behind began to clearly reveal themselves, before confidence fell to 29 percent in 2012, the year the federal government began issuing waivers form NCLB’s accountability mechanisms… then to an all-time low in 2014, at 26 percent.”

Schneider shows, however, that scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress in both language arts and math remained relatively flat, in fact growing very slightly between the 1970s and 2012.  Schneider concludes: “(I)t seems that national reform rhetoric has driven the decline in perceptions of school quality.  For the past several decades, Americans have been inundated with messages about a crisis in public education.”

Having rejected the narrative of widespread public school failure, Schneider reminds us that we do have an education problem, but we’ve chosen to ignore it as we listened to the wrong narrative: “But sweeping, large-scale reform is hardly the remedy for what ails our most vulnerable schools—the schools where our poorest and least advantaged students are all so often concentrated together. Disruption, which is so highly lauded in the private sector, is exactly what those schools don’t need. Instead, what they need is courageous policy addressing issues like school integration and compensatory funding… Instead of telling a largely untrue story about a system in decline—a story that absolves us of any personal responsibility—we might begin telling a different story: about a system that works.  It works to deliver a high-quality education to those we collectively embrace. And it works in a different way for those we have collectively refused. When a school fails, it is because we have failed.”

Schneider’s column is dated on the same day as Eliza Shapiro’s shocking story in the NY Times about the very students Schneider worries about, the students our society fails to embrace. The headline on Shapiro’s story is a shocker, although anybody who has noticed the price of housing in places like New York City or San Francisco or Seattle or Boston shouldn’t be a bit surprised: Homeless in New York Public Schools Is at a Record High: 114,659 Students. Shapiro explains: “Tonight, about one out of every 10 students in New York City will sleep in a homeless shelter or in the homes of relatives. That’s more children than at any other time since city records have been kept. In the morning, those same children will fan out across the city to go to school, some crossing multiple boroughs to get there.”  Here are some of the facts: “There are about 1.1 million children in the city’s public schools in total.” “There are more homeless students in New York City than people in Albany.” “At 144 public schools, a third of the children are homeless.” “In one Bronx school district, 10,804 students are homeless.” “For every 1,660 homeless students, there’s roughly 1 social worker.” “(T)he number of students in temporary housing has ballooned to 114,659 students as of last spring, from 69,244 children in 2010.”

Shapiro explains that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city have struggled to address this problem which has overwhelmed the city’s institutions: “The city first earmarked $10.3 million for homeless students in 2016, and increased spending on social workers and other services for homeless students to $13.9 million last year, with the City Council pitching in about another $2 million from its own budget.  For perspective, the Department of Education’s total budget for the current school year is $32.3 billion.  The amount set aside for services pays for about 70 social workers—or roughly one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students. The funding also pays for more after-school programs and additional staff to help homeless families apply to schools. In addition, the city started to send students in kindergarten through sixth grade who were living in homeless shelters to school by bus in 2016.”  Richard Carranza, the NYC Schools Chancellor, has announced that the school district is “bringing this work under the Office of Community Schools to address key challenges students and families face.”

Homeless students are not purely a school problem, but our society has neither actively chosen to connect the issues around housing and health care and poverty that converge in the lives of these public school students nor considered how to address the families’ challenges outside of school. The children’s needs must, of course, be addressed by their schools. Shapiro describes Meghan Dunn, the principal of Public School 446 in Brooklyn: “Last year, Ms. Dunn said she got a call from a mother who was injured in a nearby homeless shelter and needed surgery.  But when the mother was forced to find another shelter, her four children, all of whom attended P.S. 446, had to figure out a way to travel to the Bronx to apply for a new placement at the city’s sole intake center for homeless families… Ms. Dunn sent one of her social workers to the shelter to help arrange a paid taxi ride to bring the injured mother and her children across the city, but the four students still missed several days of school. That was one of many emergency situations that Ms. Dunn said she dealt with that week.”

Ironically, although, “New York City is arguably the philanthropic center of the world… the philanthropic arm of the Frankfurt, Germany-based Deutsche Bank is the only organization that has given more than $1 million to specifically support homeless students in recent years.”

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3 thoughts on “Exploding Inequality and Poverty: We Got the “Failing” Schools Narrative Wrong and Failed to See the Real Problem

  1. Teachers in any public school system do not get to pick their students, since ALL students are there to be addressed. Needs vary from student to student, but needs rise exponentially when the matter of income inequality & poverty raises its ugly head. Nothing saps student potential more than when lack of physical resources trumps the learning atmosphere & potential. Being under-nourished affects thinking possibilities in the very young students not just daily at school but nightly when the student faces uncertainty of food & shelter. It’s tough enough for average & expected developmental barriers, but poverty puts these in a tailspin when the physical lacks run amuck as the spirit is dampened & the mind deadened. For those children who do not have a book to call their own or see a parent in the act of reading, much less being read to, the outside world is far tougher than usual. Reading is the life-skill that makes all else possible, from leisure and satisfaction to job application and stability. If the state of poverty made worse by homelessness renders Head Start insufficient, society must make Pre-Head Start available to make the difference. Invest there, or the school-to-prison pipeline will make those jumpsuits of orange far higher than your school taxes could ever rise.

    The proudest I have ever been as a parent was when my daughter worked for Indian Health Service on the Arizona desert & part of her duties was to oversee Head Start on the reservation. It was a difficult but rewarding task. Far too many suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome which was a bridge-too-far for many to overcome, but if they were ever to be able to make it off “the res” their journey began right there. Being able to read was everything, and it always would be.

    No, the public does not understand —or care?—about those 3rd or 4th grade reading assessments, but we must. Without this, STEM is not possible. Everybody does not have to be an astronaut or brain surgeon, but comprehension & success depends on reading.

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