It should be obvious that poverty takes a toll on a child’s ability to learn: they lack the same educational resources, struggle with medical and psychological issues that their families can’t afford to address, and are bogged down by the stress and worry that naturally accompanies working-class life. Yet few discussions on school reform seem cognoscente of this problem:
“Reform of teacher tenure,” Paul Tough writes in a new book, “How Children Succeed,” has become “the central policy tool in our national effort to improve the lives of poor children.” Are we expecting too much of our teachers? Schools are clearly a critical piece — no, the critical piece — in any anti-poverty strategy, but they can’t go it alone. Nor can we do school reform on the cheap. In the absence of any bold effort to alleviate the pressures of poverty, in the absence of any bold investment in educating our children, is it fair to ask that the schools — and by default, the teachers — bear sole responsibility for closing the economic divide? This is a question asked not only in Chicago, but in virtually every urban school district around the country.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been spending time at Harper High, a neighborhood school in Englewood that started classes in mid-August. Over the past year, the school lost eight current and former students to violence; 19 others were wounded by gunfire. The school itself, though, is a safe haven. It’s as dedicated a group of administrators and faculty members as I’ve seen anywhere. They’ve transformed the school into a place where kids want to be. And yet each day I spend there I witness one heartbreaking scene after another. A girl who yells at one of the school’s social workers, “This is no way to live,” and then breaks down in tears. Because of problems at home, she’s had to move in with a friend’s family and there’s not enough food to go around. A young man, having witnessed a murder in his neighborhood over the summer, has retreated into a shell. Just within the last month, another girl has gotten into two altercations; the school is naturally asking, what’s going on at home?
The stories are all too familiar, and yet somehow we’ve come to believe that with really good teachers and longer school days and rigorous testing we can transform children’s lives. We’ve imagined teachers as lazy, excuse-making quasi-professionals — or, alternately, as lifesavers. But the truth, of course, is more complicated. Quality schools and quality teaching clearly can make a difference in children’s lives, sometimes a huge difference, but we too often attempt to impute to teachers impossible powers. (After more than 15 years of reform in Chicago, the dropout rate has been markedly reduced but is still an astonishing 40 percent.)
Consider that in Chicago, many elementary schools have a social worker just one or two days a week (they’re shared among schools) in communities where children face myriad pressures and stresses. Class sizes in kindergarten through third grade hover around 25, even though the Tennessee STAR study, conducted in the 1980s and renowned in education circles, found that small classes of about 15 during those early years can make a big difference for students’ long-term outcomes. In Chicago, slots in after-school programs for 6- to 12-year-olds have been reduced by 23 percent since 2005, according to Illinois Action for Children, an advocacy organization. Earlier this year, the city shuttered half its mental health clinics. A promising mentoring program, Becoming a Man, which was found by a University of Chicago study to have reduced violence and increased graduation rates among its participants, is oversubscribed. Forty-five schools want its services, but it has only enough money to work in 15. Last year, at an Aspen Institute conference, the education historian Diane Ravitch was asked her wish list to improve schools. At the top of her list: universal prenatal care — which, of course, has nothing to do with the classroom. Or so it would seem.
Keep in mind that nearly 87% of Chicago’s public school students come from low-income families, as do most public school attendees across the control. Schools are more than avenues of education: they’ve increasingly become the only focal point for addressing a myriad of social, medical, and personal problems of children. But they’re being neglected in this regard.