Same Straw Man, Different Day
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.