Home > Uncategorized > Same Straw Man, Different Day

Same Straw Man, Different Day

December 14, 2013

At first glance, today’s column in the Oklahoman seems like a minor departure for our state superintendent. She acknowledges the effects of poverty on learning. She uses a more conciliatory tone than she does in interviews and on the campaign trail.

Too many children come to school hungry, tired and ill-prepared to learn. More than half of Oklahoma kids in poverty are living with a single parent, many of whom are holding down two or more jobs just to make ends meet. Many of these children don’t have the benefit of an adult helping them with their homework, much less the use of books or a home computer.

That’s why the column is worth a second read. In spite of the subtle differences, the message remains consistent with everything she has ever said. She still believes Oklahoma schools are using poverty as an excuse rather than trying to help children.

Is poverty, then, good enough of a reason to hold these children to low expectations that essentially relegate them to a lesser education?

This is Janet Barresi’s standard Straw Man argument. What she doesn’t understand, having never spent a year teaching children in a high-poverty school, is that every teacher, principal, and staff member works to overcome these obstacles. At the end of the year, no good educator is satisfied with the results. Students take tests, and eventually, scores from those tests are converted into accountability measures.

As reflected by the A-F school grades released last month by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, there is often a correlation between students’ academic achievement and their income level.

That certainly isn’t the case universally. There are numerous cases of high-poverty schools that had exceptional performances. One such example is Southeast High School in Oklahoma City. Despite having 87 percent of its student body eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, the school earned an A overall. In the Putnam City district, Tulakes Elementary School — where more than 83 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunches — earned a B-plus.

Barresi points to the outliers. Yes, they should be congratulated. Yes, we should delve heavily into exploring what works for them. We should not, however, accept the faulty logic of overlaying anecdotal evidence across every school in the state. If we do, then we should assume that every A school in the state is better than every B school in the state. I would argue differently. I have – repeatedly. A high-poverty school with a high grade has probably worked harder to get it. The B+ earned by Tulakes is probably more impressive than some of the higher grades earned by other schools.

It would be folly to deny the effects of poverty, but that should not, and cannot, allow for its acceptance. Poverty is a factor, not an excuse. We do no favors to children in low-income families when we hold them and their schools to a lesser standard of education. If we lower expectations for some students because of their economic condition, we in effect set them up for a future of closed doors and missed opportunities.

This is a matter of civil rights. A destitute child doesn’t warrant a good education any less than that of kids in comfortable suburbs. Schools alone can’t break the cycle of poverty, but providing a solid education for children in poverty can be a huge step toward giving them a pathway to a different future.

Nobody is arguing that a poor child deserves less of an education. Here she jabs again at her fictitious enemy. The calamity of it all is that she and her enablers know that poverty impacts achievement, but their solution continues to be blaming schools, rather than addressing poverty in our society.

Poverty creates a tremendous challenge for students, teachers and administrators. It will take a tremendous effort, but Oklahoma educators are more than up to the task.

If Barresi truly believed this last line, she wouldn’t continue insulting the profession and its professionals. She tells us in emails that it’s not her fault we aren’t doing our jobs. She calls out the “liberal education establishment” and those who would protect the status quo. She curses and pledges to block teachers from losing “another generation of Oklahoma’s children.”

Lost in this discussion is the picture of what working with students in poverty really entails. Schools not only struggle to meet their academic needs; they also lack the resources to attend to their physical, psychological, and social needs. Students in poverty don’t just lack adequate food and clothing. They are more likely to experience trauma in their home lives that interrupts the learning experience. Few schools have access to mental health professionals or social workers to regularly meet with children. Counselors are tied up managing the state testing program (in the schools that can still afford counselors).

Educators in schools with high poverty levels know that two things are true simultaneously. First, we want all students to succeed. Second, we know that no matter how hard we work we won’t always be successful. Understanding this balance between having high expectations and placing results in context is the key to remaining sane. It is not a lowering of expectations. It is not some Schrödingerian illusion in which two contradictory states exist simultaneously.

Having high expectations does not contradict with the understanding of the effects of poverty on learning. Not at all.

It’s time the state superintendent acknowledges this fact. What educators could use is more support, rather than two throw-away sentences at the end of another misleading opinion piece.

  1. Shirley Whitaker
    December 14, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    One thing about it, Janet thinks educators aren’t smart enough to see thru her comments. She thinks that she can manipulate people so she can continue in her position.


    • December 15, 2013 at 8:32 am

      Shirley, you’re right…she really thinks we’ll fall for this. I believe mine was the first comment on the article…That surprised me.


  2. December 15, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Janet’s PR people are definitely listening to us, or they wouldn’t have her taking such a different stance. (because the dentist is too dense to come up with ANYTHING on her own) They are trying to quell the message we are sending to the public, act as if she understands it, but then put the narcissistic spin on it and blame educators for having low expectations. I think her PR peeps realize she is going to need to take a different approach as the primary nears. The tone is “softer” but still incredibly misguided. Manipulation of the public is at the heart of her message. I do believe educators see through it…will the general public?


  3. Shelby Blackwood
    December 15, 2013 at 10:21 am

    So, let me get this straight. Ms. Barresi says that she understands poverty affects student learning and there are issues with poverty in our schools, yet she still says it doesn’t matter because teachers and schools should be doing their jobs with less funding and stop using poverty as an excuse. Ok, ok. So next time I assign my students some problems from a page in a math book, I just won’t give them the math book and explain that I understand they need their math books to do their work and I believe they can do the work, but they will just have to figure out how to get it done and I don’t want to hear their excuses. Yeah, that works…


  4. Jennifer Blackshare
    December 15, 2013 at 10:50 am

    Janet says she understands the effect poverty has on schools yet does nothing to actually help these high poverty kids. Instead she continues to spend tens of millions on testing, tens of thousands on statisticians to make us all believe in the A-F, and now even more money spent for our TLE to link teacher with students for evaluation purposes and the list goes on and on. What would the results be if we invested all those monies in helping the kids living in poverty?? Makes me crazy!!!


  5. December 15, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    After 18 years of teaching in high poverty schools, I can attest that I have spent a great deal of my own money providing food, clothes, socks, coats, etc. to my students and their families. Teaching at the high school level, I have often bought baby clothes and blankets for my pregnant students. My friends will call me when they have something extra to see if my students need it. I’m sure Dr. Barresi hasn’t dirtied her hands to that extent.


  6. Sandy Cravens
    December 15, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    The problem seems to be that most of those who are making decisions about education don’t know children. They have not spent time in the classrooms of poverty and middle income schools. They may walk through, I don’t know, but they haven’t spent time , days, and weeks. They don’t know what it is like to be a kindergarten teacher with 24 students of 7 or more who have never been to school, sat for any instruction and don’t know the abc song, colors, or how to listen to a story. They are smart, but can’t begin where a 5 year old who has pre-k experience, parents who read and talk to them and can already do abc and know their colors. Three to five or even more are ADD or ADHD or have special needs. Come on, Dr. and the rest of you decision makers, take this challenge. Spend time in classrooms with real children, dealing with real parents and these mandates you put upon us. Children are not a business!


    • Kristen
      December 15, 2013 at 3:19 pm

      Sandy I completely agree!! Last year State Senator Jolley came and taught for a full day I.y second grade class. (He did lunch and carpool duty, too!) his year I had a State Rep. come but he only wanted to teach for an hour. But this kind of interaction is invaluable and Senator Jolley is scheduled to return again this year to teach in a PreK / DD class. If I can help you get this kind of experience started at your school please message me on FB and I’d be more than happy to assist you however I can!
      Kristen Huffty


      • Kristen
        December 15, 2013 at 3:23 pm

        Ugh! Sorry about the typos!


      • December 15, 2013 at 7:20 pm

        I teach at a middle school with 85 percent free/reduced lunches. One of my team’s teachers tried to get a well-known veteran in the area to speak at our Veteran’s Day assembly, but he declined saying that he prefers to speak at schools where he gets more respect. We decided to have our own veterans on staff speak.

        I’d love to see our legislators come to our school and teach for a day!


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