State of Education in America: The State of the Student

On October 17, 2013, I was fortunate to snag a pass to Education: State of the Student; one of the many SOLD OUT sessions of Chicago Ideas Week. The session speakers talked about ways to overcome the many challenges that exist in education, from birth to adulthood. For many weeks since the session, I’ve been meaning to post my notes and feedback & hadn’t been able to focus my thoughts. Then, I happened to catch the latest commercial for the Surface; a tablet from Windows. In the commercial, a teacher is telling us, the audience, that his students all have the Surface tablet & though he’s “old fashioned” and would prefer the chalkboard, the benefits of the Surface are great as it relates to learning. As a teacher and a parent, I agree that every student having a tablet would be great, but it’s not my reality.

If we break the surface (pun intended) and look at the the reality of education, as presented during Chicago Ideas Week. 1 out of every 5 Chicago schools is considered low income. That means that 40% or more of the student body falls at or below the national guidelines for poverty. In these schools, you are less likely to have students with access to a tablet per student unless generous donations have been made, or grant funding has been received. These schools also experience higher rates of teacher turnover than others, so they lack the consistency needed to research, write, and see funding grants through to fruition. The communities that service many low income students, have lower tax-based revenues than wealthier communities, so there’s typically less resources. In my low-income school for example, our primary teachers still have chalkboards, and a shortage of chalk.

Lack of resources is one of the many challenges of poverty. Rectifying it is long-term & expensive. However, one of the major problems of poverty is one that cannot be seen. Poverty is a trauma; stress.  Stress activates the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism; controlled by the HPA axis of the brain.  Studies have shown that low-income students often exhibit some of the same behaviors as those who have Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).  Why?  Think about it…in a traumatic situation, there is often loss of life.  Turn on the news.  Many of an area’s murders are concentrated in low-income communities.  In a traumatic situation, people’s lives are uprooted.   In low-income areas, students’ lives are frequently uprooted as parents have to move around to find affordable housing, or as teachers come and go due to high turnover ratios.  The results are higher level of suspensions and expulsions in low-income schools than other areas.  And it’s not just physical aggression.  The “fight or flight” mechanism may result in students who seem defiant because they do not answer a teacher or administrator when being talked to (temporary auditory loss from the mechanism), or who seemingly overreact when someone is in their space or has taken something that belongs to them.  As one of the speakers said, “Grad schools aren’t preparing teachers…” to deal with these things.  The solution, as proposed by Turnaround for Children, is to increase the number of social workers and mental health professionals in schools to support students and teachers.

So then what – if we staff schools with more social workers and mental health professionals, and provide some emotional support to move towards healing and dealing with the stresses of poverty, what then do we do with the teachers that serve in low-income schools?  How do we prevent high turnover rates in these schools?  How do we handle school closings and takeovers?  “To change outcomes, change experiences.”  That’s what one of the speakers said and it rang true.  Teacher training practicums have got to give pre-service teachers realistic expectations and experiences in low-income schools.  The psychology classes have to address the impact of poverty.  The idea is not to say, “you’re poor, so I’m going to teach you this way,” however it is to look at the background of the child and consider it in instruction.

To change student outcomes, we also need to change their experiences.  For example, in preparing for high-stakes testing, there was a story about a beach.  Students struggled with that story because many had never been to the beach, though it was about a 20-minute ride away from the school.  In 2009, Fenger high school was a failing school on the far South Side of Chicago.  That’s when Liz Dozier took over.  Funding poured into the school with grants and other area corporate support and Ms. Dozier was able to increase gradation rates and decrease suspensions.  Four years later, however, the funding is running out, programs have had to be cut, and some of the problems that existed in 2009 are creeping back into Fenger’s walls.  Ms. Dozier said, “turning around (a school) is expensive, not difficult…long term support is needed.”

As the commercial stated…change can be good.  It certainly is needed.  Who’s signing up to donate tablets to my classroom?

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