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Naison writes: "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.'"

Diego Johnson, 11, searches for the correct answer to a question during a reading lesson with fifth-grade teacher Barbara Moore at Barr Elementary School in Jackson, Mississippi, 01/08/12. (photo: Barbara Gauntt/The Clarion-Ledger)
Diego Johnson, 11, searches for the correct answer to a question during a reading lesson with fifth-grade teacher Barbara Moore at Barr Elementary School in Jackson, Mississippi, 01/08/12. (photo: Barbara Gauntt/The Clarion-Ledger)

America's Teachers See Growing Poverty Up Close

By Mark Naison, LA Progressive

14 January 12


If you want to know the human impact of the current recession, ask America's teachers

ne 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 voices - 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's 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 are afraid they may have little or nothing to eat all weekend The only time they know they 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 '70s, '80s and '90s.

What is new is the extent of the suffering as more and more families whose lives were once stable get pushed into poverty.

All throughout 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? your social media marketing partner


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+41 # futhark 2012-01-14 19:05
I'm a recently retired teacher with 32 years of classroom experience in a small, rural high school in which well over 50% of the students were on the free or reduced lunch programs. Academic motivation was perennially low and not made any better by the dicta of NCLB or STAR testing. The notion that many of these students would qualify for college admissions was ludicrous and, even if they did qualify academically, there would be very little chance for them to survive 4 years of college life financially.
+19 # amye 2012-01-15 01:13
We all know these stories and what is our president and congress doing about it??? Absolutely nothing! Nada! Apparently they don't care as long as their kids go to private schools!! The morality is appalling to say the least! Wait until these kids and their families get really desperate! They'll be robbing the rich just to eat! Maybe then the rich will do something decent instead of stealing from the already poor and poverty stricken!
+34 # tomo 2012-01-15 01:40
There is less mystery to our educational crisis than meets the eye. What meets the eye is: "Oh my, we have almost no money for education just now; but if ever we find a lot of money, we will fund it properly--by golly we will."

The truth is simpler. In a nation where the justice system is owned by the corporations--s uch as ours is--it is not convenient to have a well educated public. The public can be more easily manipulated into giving up its young to the military when the young are uneducated and desperate. Also, what well educated public would allow the corporations to shift all the tax burden onto them? If education continues, democracy will too--and that would be very "Un-American."
+21 # BobHG 2012-01-15 03:14
Absolutely disgraceful. If the government spent as much on education as it does on war toys, this story would not exist.
+28 # ericlane 2012-01-15 06:37
Of all the 'wars' that the radical right and corporate America are 'fighting,' the most disgusting is the war against teachers and public education. It never ceases to amaze me that when it comes to education, the last people consulted are educators. This shows clearly that there is a concerted agenda to destroy public education. We already have a 3-tiered education system: one for the wealthy and so-called elites, one for those who have enough financial and family support to become managers and professionals and one for the vast majority of Americans that will allow them to be barely literate but desperate for work. I don't recognize our country any more. Especially since Ronald Reagan's 'greed is good' philosophy and the Radical Religious Right's ideologically driven hatred of anyone different from them (that means anyone who is not 'them'). When teachers are in charge of education and the Bill Gates's and other corporate wackos stop trying to create a nationalized corporate mind and workforce, then we might start believing in the American Dream again.
+26 # Glen 2012-01-15 06:38
I, too, taught school, futhark, and saw the poverty and struggles of students in a rural area. Friends who taught in cities saw it far longer. Some parents, in an attempt to save their children from the influence of city life, either moved to rural areas, or sent the kids to live with grandparents. The troubles of those kids arrived at the new school intact, and it was difficult to "heal" the kids, if at all.

The U.S. is crumbling from within and it shows up in the children first. These are the people that will grow up to be the main sector of the population, which is a daunting thought. The poor treatment of children is one of the first signals of a dying culture.
+22 # cvm79 2012-01-15 06:39
When teacher accountability became a political issue in the 90's it seemed that every morning I heard a news report about how American students couldn't perform some simple intellectual task and was amazed at how out of touch the testers were. The testers had probably never taught teenagers and didn't realize that when you ask an American teenager a stupid question they will give you a stupid answer on purpose and then go laugh about it with their friends.

That same ignorance has has been exposed in our politicians who want to make us like Japanese schools. That's a great idea except for the fact that not everybody in our schools shares the same culture like the Japanese. We have this thing called "diversity" which we have to deal with. Politicians don't care as long as they get the "soundbite." They did the bidding of the 1% part by declaring that the "greedy teacher's unions" were to blame and creating class warfare by turning parents against teachers.

The system has been broken by con men shilling for votes who think that a campaign visit to a school, putting on a Dr. Seuss hat, and reading a story qualifies them to make policy. One has to be in there day after day to know what's really going on.

There are more children living out of cars and homeless shelters than ever. How often do you find that in Japan? Do you think that those kids care about test scores in a society as image-conscious as ours?
+15 # cvm79 2012-01-15 08:13
The 1% were additionally served by No Child Left Behind which actually did the opposite. The whole point of NCLB was to punish impoverished children for being poor. It decreases funding and resources for those who need it most. Is that what they meant by "compassionate conservatism?" They'd feel bad when they threw those children away?

Socrates said the a wise man knows that he doesn't know. That speaks volumes about the wisdom of our politicians.
+3 # Glen 2012-01-15 17:18
Schools became a political issue when Russia sent Sputnik into orbit, and the U.S. reacted with fear and loathing that the Soviets just might be ahead of the U.S. in education and science. The pressure on schools was then on. Education became a ferocious push to get kids into college and prove them superior to other countries. It then morphed into getting jobs, which would open the world of possibilities to students to make big money. Education for the sake of knowledge and culture went by the wayside and there it is stuck. Nothing even remotely connected to self-improvemen t or knowledge - just an "education" in a corporate environment.

Shallow and sad.
+8 # epcraig 2012-01-15 08:45
Teaching is badly enough paid to drive most out of the profession within a couple of years. That does not bode well for teaching.
+12 # LeeMG 2012-01-15 08:47
I taught thirty years. One year, JF Kennedy got us aides. We saw dramatic improvement in migrants when adults who looked and talked like them showed education was important. Another highpoint was the first years of state lottery money we could use to buy things we could really use. Then the district re-directed the money from classrooms to special projects.
0 # futhark 2012-01-16 09:44
We had, on at least two occasions, math courses that had computer-based, student self-paced curriculum. I taught one of these courses for two years and thought it was beneficial for the students who didn't seem to find success in the traditional textbook, lecture, and exercises educational format. Other teachers who taught these courses liked them, as did the students.

However, both of these programs were terminated by the administration, who decided that they were not successful, although I never did understand exactly what the basis of this decision was. I think it could be traced back to textbook publishers pushing the sales of "standards aligned" texts linked to No Child Left Behind, more rightly known as No Publisher Left Without A Profit.
0 # Glen 2012-01-16 16:16
Futhark, your assumption concerning NCLB is correct. Even Barbara Bush was pushing her family's bogus learning centers on schools, but they could not receive monetary assistance unless those learning centers were purchased.

There is a lot we could all say concerning schools and the political issues, and a big one is the difference between testing methods and the questions on those tests, often approved of by business people rather than those tests being generated by serious educators. My first alarms went off when reading a question for 7 year olds in a rural school, concerning where would you get fish for dinner. All the kids here responded by saying they would go to the river to fish. Every single child missed the question. In urban areas the grocery store is the only answer.

And so on. Thankfully, I had administrators who insisted on keeping it "clean" and who resisted the NCLB as much as possible. But - when the federal government is calling the shots, you duck and submit.
+17 # tonenotvolume 2012-01-15 09:07
The triple strike against us - teachers are blamed for an achievement error mostly due to society's ills, their unions are framed as achievement busters, and as state or federal employees, teachers are shamed into thinking they're paid too much. Meanwhile, teachers keep working with students and families, continue to police their own ranks, and do it all in spite of the disrespect and the pay. Give me a teacher anytime rather than a general, a CEO, or a politician.
+13 # jayjay 2012-01-15 09:36
Let's face it, when was the last time a President sent his kid(s) to a PUBLIC school? Try Jimmy Carter. Also as a former teacher, I am disgusted with the fact that we had to spend some of our precious time at lunch duty, bus duty, hall duty, in-school suspension duty, etc, etc, etc. Just shows you where the priorities are.
+8 # reiverpacific 2012-01-15 11:31
Best way to ensure a "new slavery" is to keep the "new poor" without or with minimal education (Just enough to be able to work minimum wage or less and buy a flickering screen with which to lap up the capitalist overlords' commercial info-tainment propaganda) -but they'll get it one way or another, which points to these "Universities of Crime" or one of the growing number of profiteering private prisons, Then how far away is the Orwellian fantasy of "1984"? The cops are already using Darth vader as their role model, with touches of Cap'n Bly of the "Bounty".
The Tories are trying to do the same in England -but not Scotland, which is resisting Cameron's tryst with "The City" and their lapdogs in Westminster.
We must occupy schools also.
+11 # Adoregon 2012-01-15 13:45
Welcome to life on the plantation.
+5 # Norm2 2012-01-15 17:30
When I taught, the state's test scores included the scores of the special ed. students. Depending on the level of the student, some will never pass the test even when working hard and doing their best. Some countries don't even try to include special ed. students in their schools. Many students tried to sleep through class and came in drinking soda for breakfast. Some could not speak English. Some countries will not keep students in school who are disruptive. We do. In some countries teachers only teach and do not do extra duties, such as recess duty, or even keep track of homework grades. Yet we try to compare our scores with other countries and measure a teacher's ability by student test scores. To fix a problem an honest assessment must first be made. Some people jumped on the band wagon and blamed the teachers for any student's lower test score. Now we're trying to fix a problem - teachers - that wasn't the problem at all and using them for an excuse to break the public schools. And perhaps for some of these special ed. students they need other skills that aren't measured in the tests, but they aren't getting that training. Students are individuals and need to feel they are more than test subjects.
+2 # jimyoung 2012-01-15 20:21
Some of the best students from smaller communities were ones that went through the middle school and high school years with special ed students that stayed with them through the years. It may not be possible everywhere, but it seems it was an beneficial unintended consequence.

For some interesting possibilities, look at Salman Kahn at Kahn, a former Hedge Fund Analyst designed software and graphic illustration (similar to active charts Hedge funds use?) for the Los Gatos School System, letting students progress at the rates best for them, with far more collaboration with peers from around the world, far more than a teacher alone can provide.
+4 # tenayaca 2012-01-17 12:30
OK, enough. Can everyone go back to the ORIGINAL WORD for "food insecurity"-- STARVATION!!!
+1 # clarrie 2012-01-17 16:52
Christ, yours is one fucked-up country! I didn't read all the comments and maybe this point was made, but with america in a 'continual state of war' and another invasion about to take place, quite clearly the battle ground fodder has to come from somewhere and what's better than poorly educated and hungry bods? The enticement of government-fund ed education (GI Bill???) for those who survive the roulette of war is the funding model and it's better to offer it at the end of service because there's always going to be reduced numbers.
I repeat: one fucked-up country!

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