Tuesday, January 4, 2011

America’s disdain for its children By Valerie Strauss

Americans don’t really think very much of their children. Not really.

Yes, we love our own children, and sometimes the kid next door. But a look at the education world as we enter 2011 reveals how little we really care about childhood and the importance of creating the conditions in which young people can grow and learn in safe and secure and smart environments.

If we did actually give a hoot about kids:

*We would never tolerate a poverty rate among children of 21 percent.

That’s one in five kids who live in poverty, or nearly 15 million children in the United States who live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, currently pegged at $22,050 a year for a family of four.

And that, of course, doesn’t include the kids who live in families of four who make $22,051 a year. Or $22,052. In fact, research shows that families need an income of about twice the poverty level to cover basic costs, so at that rate, 42 percent of American children live at or close enough to the poverty level so that basics aren’t being covered.

*We would never pretend that any single institution, especially public schools, can overcome the problems caused by a life in poverty. Reformers would stop staying that citing poverty as a problem is “an excuse.”

Don’t, please, write me and tell me that I am offering teachers an excuse not to work hard. You know I’m not.

Acknowledging that poverty matters means that we have to counter its effects when children come to school -- making sure they eat, can see, hear, aren’t exhausted – and more broadly, address the causes of poverty on a societal level.

*We would stop our hypocrisy over standardized tests.

On one hand we admit that they are too rudimentary to be used for any high-stakes decisions.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2009 at the National Education Association’s annual conference: “I understand that tests are far from perfect and that it is unfair to reduce the complex, nuanced work of teaching to a simple multiple choice exam. Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions. That would never make sense."

And on the other, we use them for high-stakes decisions anyway.

When the Los Angeles Times published so-called “value added” test scores to rate teachers in the city’s public schools last summer, Duncan said, “What’s there to hide? In education, we’ve been scared to talk about success."

*We would not demonize teachers, but rather treat them as professionals.

This means paying them a professional salary, ensuring that they have professional training (not a summer crash course), giving them a large role in what happens in their own classrooms, and finding fair ways to evaluate teachers so that those who don’t belong in a classroom can be removed.

*We would stop thinking that we can tell anything about really young kids by subjecting them to silly tests and recognize the value of learning through play. Quality pre-kindergarten would be a national priority.

*We would stop underfunding public school systems.
We hear plenty about how much public money is being wasted, and, certainly, one can always find places where it is. But the bigger problem is that public systems are being starved. Some systems have cut out a day of school each week because they can’t afford it, and there is talk in California about cutting an entire month out of the public school calendar.

This is nothing but sickening.

*We would never allow the public school system to be dependent on the good will of private citizens or foundations.

*We would stop pretending that charter schools are the be-all and end-all of public education.

Yes, yes, some of them are tremendous schools. But most of them aren’t any better than their local traditional public school, and many have less “accountability” than traditional schools, but you couldn’t tell that by listening to some school reformers and wealthy funders.

*We would stop pretending that teachers unions are the cause of all of the ills of public education, and accept the common-sense refutation that the problems are the same in states without teachers unions. You don’t have to love unions to accept this reality.

*We would really try to consider what kids need and think.

For example, we know that for biological reasons, teenagers fall asleep later at night, and one study showed that students attending high schools with later start times were less likely to report being sleepy during the day. But we stick to early start times anyway.

*We would remember that the public school system is our most glorious civic institution. Yes, it needs to be improved, but not in the way we are doing it now. We would, in fact, inject humanity into public schooling. Somehow we’ve let that slip away.

Add up all of this, and then tell me how much America really likes its children.


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