By: Lashaunda Marie
I am a high school science teacher. I have four years of experience in urban schools that receive Title 1 funds. This means that these schools receive funding to help close the achievement gap that is often found in schools with a majority of low-income/ disadvantaged students. I have two years of experience in a charter school in Columbus, Ohio, and I have two years of experience in the state’s largest district, Columbus City Schools.
* * *
The failure of public education is toted about freely as if it is a matter which applies uniformly to all public school systems in the country. In reality it is a multi-faceted issue that is affecting schools in different ways for different reasons. Unfortunately, our nation seems to believe that we need to apply a uniform solution to an issue that is extraordinarily complex. I am speaking primarily of the concept of school choice, an idea which is promoted by our current Secretary of Education Betsy Devos.
Devos would like to incorporate the public school system. She wants schools to operate in a fashion similar to that of the private business sector. The goal of a business is to be more successful than other similar businesses. The successfulness of a business is measured in the amount of money that is made by that business. Furthermore, a business relies on competition to help them meet that end goal. The more competitive advantages the business has, the more money they will make. So, a business will hire the best employees, utilize the best tools, and reply upon the most skilled accountants to help them reach their final goal of making the most money. In the business world, this method works, as Devos’ family is fully aware.
In the world of public education, success is measured in the number of students who pass a lengthy series of standardized tests. Devos believes that competition is the key to success. Therefore, her goal is to create a culture in the public school system in which schools compete to produce students who are the most prepared to perform well on assessment tests. She argues that we should create schools that compete for the best teachers and the best students. She wants to give parents the choice of the quality of education their children receive. Over all, she wants to promote a culture of schools that consistently produce successful test takers. In writing, the concept sounds great. If the students become very good at taking standardized tests, then it follows that students are more likely to graduate on time and get into and complete college or become skilled at a trade.
What Devos fails to take into account is “buy-in” from the students. This buy-in to education in general is markedly different in the lower socioeconomic sectors than it is for the higher sectors. The root of this divergence is in the relative stability of the home lives of students in the middle/upper socioeconomic sector compared to those in the low socioeconomic sector.
Our students in low-income/ disadvantaged districts have little incentive to ‘buy in’ to their own education. Educational expectations are not reinforced at home because parents are either working incessantly in order to make ends meet or are involved in detrimental activities such as drug and alcohol use. There is very little stability for many of the students in the low socioeconomic sector, and this instability translates into poor academic performance.
Think about it, a young lady goes home, and there is no food in the house because the girl’s single mother had to choose between buying food or paying for electricity to heat the home in the winter. Alternatively, a young man is the eldest of four children. His father is out of the picture, and while his mother is strung out on heroin, it is the boy’s responsibility to care for and feed his younger siblings. How could anyone expect this young lady or this young man to come to school and focus on anything relevant to education. We all know that education would be their mechanism of escape from this poverty, but how can either of them even consider this option, when they lack anything resembling stability and comfort. These are only a couple of examples of the multitude of complex and complicated scenarios that our youth in low-income urban settings are facing today.
The situation is different for most students in suburban and more affluent public school districts. Due to the relative stability in their home life, the students themselves ‘buy-in’ to their own education because they have the luxury of forethought. They are able to relate their current actions and efforts to their success in the future. I admit that Devos’ plan could be successful in this particular sector of public education. At least, her solution is practical for this demographic, even if it does produce a generation of robots who are really good at passing tests.
School choice is not a practical solution for students in low-income urban school districts. Many students in these school districts live in and around poverty. Their home lives are far from stable, and the students exist in a culture that focuses on the present. These students are often stuck in that endless cycle that is poverty because they have to make life-sustaining decisions everyday. Students end up getting jobs to help out, or they might turn to drugs as a form of income or mental escape. Their lives are so unstable that they do not have the luxury of considering what the future may hold for them. They’re too busy trying to figure how to survive today.
Of course these schools are failing. The students do not have the luxury of caring about what happens in school or how to pass some standardized test. Nothing in these student’s lives is stable. Yet, Devos’s ‘solution’ is to create more schools, more choice, more pressure for these students. This is why her appointment scares me so much. She seems to be completely oblivious to real issues that are facing our low-income/ disadvantaged youth. If she has her way, our students are guaranteed to fail because resources will be pulled from them and redirected to areas in our society in which people are overwhelmed with advantages.
The appropriate solution is to diversify our solutions. We have a buzzword in education called “differentiated instruction”. In short, the concept recognizes that all students have different backgrounds and different styles of learning. It suggests that in order to meet the needs of our students, we must vary our methods of instruction. I would like to believe that Devos is aware of this term, and this is why she wants to provide school choice for parents. The reality is that while choices provides an opportunity for growth in some students (i.e. those who already have a great foundation and stability), any intervention specialist would tell you that too many choices can have a detrimental affect on some students, for they become overwhelmed. Devos needs to differentiate her methods of preventing the failure of the school system. Sure, go ahead and allocate funds for school choice in districts that already demonstrate that students are stable and have a solid foundation.
But, in schools where students do not have this foundation, let’s create it for them. If the home life of these students is so unstable, then at least let schools be consistent. Provide the schools in disadvantaged areas with the resources to provide stability for the students. For example, Columbus City Schools has allocated funds to provide free breakfast and lunches to all of their students so that access to food will not be a barrier to education. In addition to a reliable source of food, schools must have the resources to help students process the dire nature of the reality to which they are exposed everyday. This could be in the form of a team of counselors, therapists, and life coaches who will consistently be present and with whom students can develop meaningful, reliable and safe relationships. Furthermore, many students who cause disruptions in schools have the most tragic home lives. These students subconsciously crave structure and routine. Unlike conditions as home, for these students structure and routine are consistent and reliable.
Instead of funding a plethora of school choices in this particular sector, as Devos wants, let’s provide our students a reason to buy-in to their own education. In order to establish this buy-in these schools need the funds to reorganize their infrastructure. Students have to be able to recognize school as a place that is stable, consistently safe, and conducive to learning, where their confidence and critical thinking can be nurtured. Parental involvement will always be an issue in this demographic until we can get enough students to use education as a method of escape.
A radical suggestion I have is to create a boarding school option for students. For example, instead of opening new schools in these areas, provide students with room and board on the condition that they uphold academic standards and utilize resources such as counseling and/or life skills training. This stability for the students will directly translate to an increase in academic performance. I cannot conclude this essay without speaking to the quality of educators in our school systems. I know from experience that it takes a special kind of person with the patience to help these students. Unfortunately, I am aware of teachers who are teaching because they want a paycheck. They do not believe these students are worth the effort and lack the patience to help guide them. Alternatively, I am aware of teachers who coddle these students out of sympathy and refuse to hold students accountable for their actions “because the child has a rough home life”. In both cases, the teachers are preventing the students from becoming self-sufficient and productive members of society. In that, I would have to agree with Devos, teachers do need to be held accountable, in part, for the success of their students. I do not believe that teacher success can be measured by the success of their students on standardized assessment tests. Rather, teachers must be able to produce students who are self-sufficient, critical thinkers, and productive members of society, not just good test takers. The measurement of teacher success in this case would be based on the post secondary accomplishments of each student.