Are we even having the right conversation?

thVYMRRYRPIt seems like I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about education policy. As a parent and the spouse of a teacher, it always seems to come up. Still with all that time spent talking I find my self wondering if we are even having the right conversations. We talk ad nauseam about TFA, Charter Schools, testing and such but even though poverty is recognized as a leading factor in education quality, we spend precious little time discussing solutions for it.

Here’s an example. I was talking with a teacher friend the other day about a mutual friend who’s backing a voucher policy even though their child is zoned for a very good school. My teacher friend took a little bit of exception to my proclaiming the proffered school as a good school. “How do you know its a good school?” she asked, “What are you basing your assessment on?”

My reply was the typical, their test scores are good and they have this incredible parental involvement. That only served to incense my teacher friend more. “Parental involvement! What does that mean and how does that demonstrate the quality of a school?” I gave my patented “schools are the center of the community and the more involvement the community has, the better the school” speech, but she wasn’t buying. Her argument was that parental involvement could speak just as much to socio-economic status as it could to quality of school.

She proceeded to explain to me that she works in a school that is 97% FRL with children from over fifty different countries. On paper they look like a terrible school because they have so little parental involvement but how do you have parental involvement when the children barely speak English let alone the parents? How do you have parental involvement when parent’s incomes are so low that not only do both parents have to work but both have to work two jobs? That doesn’t even cover the kids who live in homes where parents are dealing with addiction and legal problems. The truth is, theirs is an excellent school. Parental involvement becomes one of those buzz words that sound great but in reality not all are capable of practicing.

Despite the lack of parental involvement the staff at this school is still deeply involved in the community. Teachers deliver boxes of food to families so that they can eat during extended school breaks. They refer family members to community services for health and social reasons as well. My teacher friend explained to me, “Every single day I give shoes to a child that doesn’t have shoes. I give clothing to a child that doesn’t have them. Right here in the United States I have to give something to some child who lacking a basic necessity. Sometimes that necessity includes love. You have no idea how much myself and the staff love those children. Yet all anybody wants to measure schools by is parental involvement and test scores.” Read that quote again and realize just what that means.

I was a little taken aback for a minute. Teachers are supposed to be teaching not providing social services right? Unfortunately we’ve made social services a big part of a teachers job. There are wonderful social organizations doing wonderful work, but as a newly arriving resident, how do you find them? Where is the one place everybody knows to go and they have to take you? Who has better insight into the things students need then the people who are educating them. Hence teachers end up spending as much time providing social services as they do educating children. After all teachers are in the business of educating and sometimes you have to get a child to a place where they are ready to learn. You know, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

We all wish this wasn’t true, unfortunately its a reality that is all too true. Its also one we don’t wish to discuss. Instead we focus on tests that are supposed to give an accurate representation of growth, but how accurate are they really. Do they really measure what that teacher means to that child and their community? I know of teachers that have been invited to attend a students Quinceanera. Teachers who regularly attend graduations for former students. Teachers that intervene for parents when they can’t communicate with their children. This is the commitment that teachers are making to these children and their families, yet where on the value added model does that show up? Where is the measurement of the lives saved daily.

Instead we get charter operators that decry failing schools and broken systems so that they can come in and take the students with the most involved parents. After all parental involvement is a big crowing point of charter schools. They talk about it as if they are so much better at it then traditional schools when the reality is, it has as much to do with socio-economic status as it does specific programs. Newer chains talk about models that provide demographics of 50% FRL, because a more even distribution is better for all. Yet when do traditional schools get this luxury and after charters remove the most involved parents who is left? The students that require even more social services. It’s a great system isn’t it?

We have put an inordinate amount of money into Common Core Standards and an equally inordinate amount of time into discussing how much better they are going to make life, but pray tell, how are the standards going to help the children I’ve described? Imagine if Gates would spent the money he’s spent on Common Core standards on affordable housing? What if he would have used that money to insure that every school had a psychologist and a school nurse? I’d be willing to bet that test scores would rise.

I know a Title I coordinator that says the next time somebody wants to talk about test scores and how bad the school is doing, she’ll invite them along on a food delivery to discuss why those scores are so low. Let them see the actual people connected to those test scores and how they actually live. I think its an excellent idea but I’m not sure how effective it would be. It would probably just lead to a discussion about how education can provide a pathway out of this life status. That’s a fine conversation about the future, unfortunately these children are living in the present.

I find it interesting as well that the people helping these children daily navigate the pathways to a better life are making between 35k and 60k a year, meanwhile the ones who are attempting to architect a new educational system are making between 250k and 400k a year. I guess that’s what the market will bear though and who am I to argue with what the market will bear? Still in adding it up, it appears to me that we are demonizing the wrong people. We are also lauding the wrong people. Martin Luther was a reformer, nobody ever paid him 400k a year.

The time is way past for us to have an honest discussion about what really impacts the children in this countries education. It time for people that claim they are all about, “the children” to actually be “all about the children”. Teach for America has begun to craft a message of diversity and position themselves as defenders of the downtrodden. They will talk about how they are providing a great teacher for those poor impoverished children, yet they sit on an account with well over 300 million dollars in it and still collect 5k a corps member from districts that are scraping to get by. What you quickly realize is the only poor people in the reform movement are the students.

Its time that we stop measuring a teacher’s value on just the things that we can currently measure. I’d be willing to bet we’ve all had teachers who we didn’t fully appreciate until we were well out of school. Teachers don’t just teach us to read and write, along with our parents they shape the people we will become. Schools are not just places to gather facts. They are places to grow and to learn how to become good citizens and for us all to discover our place in society. Until we have those conversations that we’ve been resisting, our educational system will never reach its full potential. Its time we start having the right conversations.

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