One of the things I’ve discovered in recent years is that when it comes to education policy, the last people asked for input are America’s teachers. We have a President who holds an” education summit” that includes the nation’s top business leaders and foundation heads, but no teachers; we have billionaires lobbying to privatize education and break teachers unions; we have an organization that purports to work for educational equity that encourages its recruits to leave teaching after two years because they can influence policy more by moving into other, more prestigious careers, rather than spending a lifetime as a “mere teacher.”
The results are plain to see. After ten years of No Child Left Behind, three years of Race to the Top, and twenty years of Teach for America, we have seen no change in the global standing of America’s schools and no reduction in the test score gap between racially and economically disadvantaged groups and the rest of the population.
But we lose something more than an opportunity to improve our schools by excluding teacher’s voice — we lose a chance to understand the human impact of poverty and economic distress, not only those locked in inner generational poverty, but those made newly poor by the economic crisis. Students bring the wounds of poverty into their classrooms every day, in ways that break teachers hearts, keep them up at nights, and make the accountability protocols based on test scores that “education reformers” are now imposing seem totally divorced from reality.
As someone who is married to an elementary school principal, and talks to teachers almost daily because of my work in Bronx schools and my contact with former students who have chosen to teach, I have, even second hand, been haunted by the portrait of what this Recession is doing to young people and their families
One thing that leaps out at me from the teacher’ss stories I hear, is how many students in poor and working class neighborhoods have no secure place to stay. Students move from apartment to apartment or house to house when their parents or /grandparents can’t pay rent; experience bouts of homelessness where they sleep in shelters, temporary residences, and occasionally subways or cars; and move in an out of foster care. Sometimes students disappear for days or weeks at a time, sometimes they disappear altogether.
But even those who come in somewhat regularly often fall asleep in class because the places they are staying are so crowded or noisy that it is difficult to sleep. I have heard these stories from teachers in inner city schools in New York, Buffalo and Philadelphia, but I have also heard them from teachers in suburban communities where people are sinking into poverty. Those who think the housing and foreclosure crisis in America has no impact on education need to talk to teachers – but we won’t do that if we believe that low attention spans in school are largely the result of “ bad teachers” protected by evil unions
That’s one portion of the stories teachers tell The other relates to the lack of food and medical care students in poor communities get and how it affects their concentration levels and general well being. I will never forget how a principal and two teachers at a school located in the most decayed and dangerous housing project in the Bronx closed the door on my Sudanese colleague and I after taking us on an upbeat tour of several classes and said “ Let us tell you what is really going on here”
“Every Friday,” the principal said, “students in the school start crying because they afraid they may have little or nothing to eat all weekend The only time they know they are going to are going to have three meals a day is on schools days. And because they closed down the health clinic in the project, students bring their whole families to see the school nurse. This is place that God forgot.”
My Sudanese colleague, by the time he had finished, started crying and said “This is like a refugee camp in Africa.” You think that this is the only place in the country where this kind of story could be told, think again. Hunger and lack of medical care is a huge and growing problem among America’s school children and has a tremendous affect on their academic performance
Then there is the growing level of violence and stress that young people experience in homes and communities where people are losing jobs, losing homes, and losing hope, violence that they bring into the school environment. I have been hearing more and more stories from teachers of kids exploding in rage at school, at one another and at teachers, sometimes individually, sometimes in large groups.
Bedlam in hallways and classrooms is increasingly common, often set off by the minutest provocation. Some of this disorder can be attributed to chaotic school environments, but some of it stems from the extraordinary stress which students are under out of school, rooted in a toxic mixture of food insecurity, unstable living situations, and violence inflicted on them by people in their own households or by neighborhood gangs and crews.
None of what I am describing is new. You could have heard similar stories from teachers in poor and working class neighborhoods in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
What is new is the extent of the suffering as more and more families whose lives were once stable get pushed into poverty.
All through out the nation, in small towns and suburbs, in once middle class communities as well as inner city neighborhoods, teachers are ready to tell these stories.
Will we listen, or will we continue to put our head in the sand and blame the messenger for the message.
With a Brooklyn Accent