Recently, Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist gave her State of Education address to the Rhode Island joint legislature. She presented a picture of increased federal funding and technology improvements to the state’s schools. She was not, however, able to present evidence of significantly improved educational outcomes notwithstanding the millions of dollars spent on improving teaching. The cloud of as many as 40 percent of Rhode Island’s high school juniors not being able to earn diplomas loomed large.
Responding to the strings attached to the Race to the Top federal funding, Rhode Island’s efforts to improve education outcomes have targeted teachers. New evaluation systems, threats of removing certifications of those in “low performing” schools, and teacher professional development from the most prominent aspects of the Race to the Top initiatives.
While there is solid research supporting the contention a student having less than competent teachers two years in a row pretty much guarantees deleterious educational consequences, there is no corresponding research having outstanding teachers two years in a row guarantees positive educational outcomes. The commissioner’s efforts at improving teaching assume a nexus between teaching and learning that is absolute – good teaching will beget good learning. Therein lies the issue.
At its most extreme, an outstanding teacher will have little or no impact on a student who is absent – a problem with children living in poverty. There are many other situations in which little learning will take place. Students who are hungry, uncomfortable due to untreated medical or dental conditions, overtired from lack of proper sleep, or highly stressed as a result of violence in their homes or neighborhoods will learn little even from the best teachers.
Research has validated the positive influence of living in a middle class home for middle class students. Having parents who support education and oversee homework in a positive learning environment, who provide enriching experiences and a stable home enhances and complements the in-school teaching efforts. Living in poverty does not often offer these supports.
There is a somewhat more insidious disconnect between teaching and learning. The stresses of living with food and housing uncertainty, and especially in close proximity to violence, have profound chemical consequences for developing bodies. Research suggests such stress has deleterious effects on short-term memory and on the brain’s executive function, which controls behavior – two vital components to effective learning. An impaired short-term memory has an obvious relationship to long-term knowledge and skills retention.
The role of behavior, or rather inappropriate behavior, has multiple implications. A child unable to sit still not only disrupts his or her own learning, but the learning of others (think in terms of an inner city classroom with numbers of such children). The inability to behave then results in the child being placed in the school’s disciplinary system. Most discipline systems, as most educators will tell you, “keep good kids good.” They not only do not change behaviors, but, through interventions such as suspension, further diminish a child’s opportunity to be educated.
Rhode Island’s education initiatives target teachers and then use student testing to validate the teaching. The assumption, as noted above, is good teaching will automatically cause good learning. The research on such an assumption suggests a tenuous connection at best. On the other hand, an overlay of a state map with one layer indicating socio-economic status and another education outcomes will result in an almost perfect correlation between money and learning – or the lack of money and the lack of learning.
There are ways to overcome some of the implications of poverty on education. The commissioner’s ability to use federal funding for preschool activities for children living in poverty is a beginning. However, there is a caveat. For years, the federally funded Head Start program has been under attack. Although it has been granted the program closes the learning gaps between children in poverty and their better off peers, the gaps reappear by third grade.
Can anyone say, “Duh?” Learning gaps are symptomatic of living in poverty. Whenever one is treating symptoms rather than cause, cessation of treatment will result in the resumption of the symptoms. The long-term goal is to reduce poverty with education playing a key role. However, in the meantime, the adverse role played by poverty in education must be addressed by continuously treating the symptoms.
The Head Start program effectively treats symptoms of poverty in early childhood. But it needs follow-up. Similar programs are needed throughout the education spectrum to level the playing field for children in poverty. This includes, again supported by research, college. Effective programs around the country include an extended school day and school year. Nutrition is a key component (it is unimaginable to consider the devastating educational impact of eliminating the current breakfast and lunch programs for these children). Outreach into homes to gain support for education and to assist parents in providing an environment conducive to learning is needed. Assurances that students’ medical and dental needs are being addressed, and a nurturing atmosphere through in-school relationships and mentoring to relieve the stresses associated with poverty, are also needed.
Please be assured the above is not being recommended by a bleeding heart liberal. On a very pragmatic level, investments, and they are investments, in raising the educational attainment of children in poverty pay big dividends. On the positive side, these children represent potential doctors, engineers, scientists, carpenters, and mechanics – tax paying, solid citizens. And the negative aspects of undereducated adults – those seeking welfare and food stamps, unemployed, or incarcerated – are greatly reduced.
If Rhode Island’s educational outcomes are to be improved, the outcomes for children in poverty must be specifically addressed. Targeting teaching misses the mark. The focus must be on learning – and there is a huge difference. Rhode Island’s plan might work if all of the state’s students were middle class or above. They obviously are not. One might argue for the present policies by using the old adage, “a rising tide raises all boats.” This is only true if all boats have anchor lines, which allow them to rise. Our children in poverty do not have any line to spare. A rising tide is merely going to swamp their boats and drown them – one need only look at the impact of the mandated, high stakes testing to see this is already happening.
A retired educator, Joseph Crowley is formerly president of the RI Association of School Principals; president of the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials; trustee of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC); and chair, NEASC Commission on Technical and Career Institutions.