Last week our local newspaper headlined the story of an eight-year-old boy who collapsed in the breakfast line at a local school. When teachers went to his aid, they discovered he was covered with bruises and lacerations. Of course, CPS was called, and the story the boy told was beyond horrific. He reported that his father, angry with his absent mother, had taken out his belt and beat the boy mercilessly with the buckle end of it, sent him to bed without supper, then came back into the bedroom to beat him some more. The next morning, with the returned mother asleep in her bed, the boy awoke, got himself dressed, and went to school. Thankfully, by his collapsing in the cafeteria line, attention was drawn to this dreadful situation, the boy and his siblings were removed from the home, and the father is now in jail, where he clearly belongs.
That won’t be the end of it for this young boy. Even though he and his siblings may be in a safer place for the time being, he will carry the emotional scars of this traumatic event with him for the rest of his life. He will have to deal with the anguish of realizing that those who are supposed to care for him are the ones who hurt him. He must try to process how and why this happened without concluding that it was his fault. This child will need extensive psychotherapy to be able to come out on the other side of this a healthy and confident human being. Sadly, the chances of his having access to this kind of support are small, and the chances of his being returned to the same situation are high. But he will go to school and he will be expected to learn the same things and at the same rate as everyone else in his class, because those are the rules of school these days.
Yes, I sense your skepticism. You’re thinking, that’s terrible all right, but that’s just an isolated case. That’s not what it’s like for most students, certainly not the majority of students.
Yes, it is where I live.
When I moved to this community as a brand new, idealistic teacher educator eight years ago, I knew it was a rural area and I knew it was the lowest in the state economically. What I did not expect was the brutal nature of rural poverty. Early on I sat down with the principal of one of the primary schools. She shared with me how low the students in her building were academically. She took me to her “war room” where she and the teachers kept constant tabs on every student, using color codes on a large board to indicate where each student ranked at any given moment. Green was for students who were on track to succeed, yellow for students who were at risk of not being on track, and red was for students who were definitely not on track. As I surveyed the board, I saw many more yellow and red students than green. Then the principal explained that the reason these students were all so low had to do with their backgrounds. Not only were they poor, they came from homes steeped in alcohol, meth and other drugs, and domestic abuse of all sorts. Many students had an incarcerated parent or parents. Some were being raised by grandparents because the parents were strung out on meth. They had little stability in their lives and rarely was there anyone to read them a bedtime story before they went to sleep, often hungry.
I guess I looked at her, mouth open in disbelief. Finally, I said, “What you’re describing is an inner city school!”
“Yes,” she said. “There’s really very little difference. And that’s why we have to work so hard to help these kids get where they need to be to pass the tests [emphasis added]. And some of them are so far behind they may never catch up.”
I came away with a new understanding of the challenges teachers of poor students are facing in rural areas, which are really the same as teachers in urban areas. Teachers are being asked to make up for four to five years of cognitive, and usually also physical, neglect these children have endured during THE most formative period in their lives, and they must do it in a few hours of school five days a week for nine months out of the year for three to four years. It is simply an impossible task.
When I defended my dissertation, I quoted the research that says that, of all the influences in school, the teacher has the greatest impact on student learning. I still believe that is true, even though one of my committee members kept challenging me on it. Now I think I understand why. What I have come to see is that the impact of the teacher is often dulled by forces outside his or her control. Sometimes the tidal wave of external factors simply overwhelms all that a teacher can bring to the table.
Let’s suppose the boy in the opening scenario hadn’t collapsed in the breakfast line. Let’s suppose that the boy had enough stamina left to get his breakfast eaten and go on to class. Does anybody think he would have been ready to learn that day? Does anybody think he would have been able to focus on his school work? Is it just possible he might have been more focused on what might happen to him when he had to go home that afternoon? I think so, and given my conversation with the principal, I must assume that there are several other students much like him in the class he returns to. Their scars just aren’t as obvious.
But the policy makers, think-tankers, and legislators who create “rigorous standards” and high stakes tests designed to assess them tell us all of that is just an excuse. Students are just lazy and don’t want to do the hard work of learning. If teachers were good teachers, they claim, they would be able to overcome these kinds of distractions and get about the business of making sure this child, these children are ready to take the reading test at the end of third grade. This is insanity! We must stop setting up impossible standards that ALL students are required to meet because, purely and simply, ALL students can’t meet them, at least not on the arbitrary schedule that policy makers demand.
Under the passage of ESSA, the reauthorization of the federal education law, responsibility for standards and testing of those standards is being “returned” to the states. If that is so, the buck will stop with our state legislatures. They will lose the excuse of blaming the federal government for the disasters that their policies cause. However, as Joanne Yatvin points out, since the new bill is based on the same flawed theories of NCLB, convincing the states to move out of that “accountability” mindset will be a monumental challenge. The law still requires annual testing in third through eighth grades. But surely the legislatures can figure out ways to make these tests less damaging! Smart legislators should be able to come up with ways to support teachers in the overwhelming challenges they are facing with students such as I have described above, rather than simply demanding success and punishing failure. Carrots and sticks do not work, and research is full of evidence on that premise.
Yatvin fears “[w]e are not done with judging our students, teachers, and schools mainly by test scores, or believing that comparisons with other countries’ scores on international tests are meaningful.” She sees the only solution to be for “parents, teachers, and informed citizens to strengthen their efforts to support our public schools. We need to put pressure on state legislatures to use their funds and power to make intelligent decisions for our schools. If we are silent, thinking that all is well now that NCLB is dead, the future will be no better than the past.”
Parents, grandparents, teachers, VOTERS, it’s time to hold the legislators accountable. We must scream at the top of our lungs until we are heard. Recent statistics tell us that almost one-fourth of American children live in the kind of poverty I have been talking about! These children need nurture and support, not unreasonable pressure and demands that they accomplish what they are not emotionally, developmentally, or cognitively ready to do.
Let’s find a better way! There’s a bruised and broken eight-year-old in my town who needs it desperately. Yatvin’s words are ringing in my ears: “If we are silent…”