Tonight an old friend drove over to my house in St. Francisville for a visit. She teaches in a public school elsewhere in Louisiana. Most of the kids in her class are living in poverty, with single parents. She’s a single mom now, one who has been on welfare. She told me that she’s hit the wall on what she calls “the welfare mentality.”

“I’ve finally gotten cynical,” she said. “I see the welfare mentality, and how it’s being perpetuated among my students, and I don’t have any faith that these reforms are going to work.”

The “reforms” she’s talking about are our Republican governor Bobby Jindal’s education reforms. My friend, for the record, is a Ron Paul Republican.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said, of the reform plan. “The whole thing ignores the reality of what these kids are living with, and how they’re being raised. The government has got to stop expecting teachers to raise these kids.”

“What do you mean ‘raise these kids’?” I asked.

She said that the kids in her classroom are getting no guidance from home. Ninety percent of the kids in her classroom are poor rural black kids. She estimates about 20 percent have intact families. She said the girls in her classes speak of having babies as normative, and see nothing wrong with the state providing for them. My friend said that when she and her daughter had to go on welfare, she “busted (her) ass” to get off. That ethic is utterly alien to the kids she’s teaching.

“You ought to read ‘A Framework For Understanding Poverty,’” she said. “That’s how it is for these kids. The governor is trying to end tenure, and I agree with a lot of that. But his reforms won’t work. They just won’t work. They don’t take into account the reality of the lives these kids have. This is the stuff I see every day.”

My friend was anxious about this. She is a Republican. The governor is a Republican. She knows the schools are a mess. He knows the schools are a mess. She believes he is operating from the point of view that what is wrong with the schools is the system itself. She would have him know that you cannot fairly blame the system when the biggest problem is the collapse of families and social norms and discipline among so many kids in the system.

“You can’t pass laws against that,” she said, and had real anguish in her voice.

I’m going to get a copy of that book by Ruby Payne, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty.” My friend, whose judgment I trust, and who is teaching in one of the most challenging schools in the state, says this book is a practical, commonsense guide to the mentality that teachers like her face every day.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention her remark that it is unjust to hold teachers accountable for the success of all the kids in their classroom. Yes, she concedes, there are deadbeat teachers, and she doesn’t oppose ending tenure so those teachers can get pink-slipped. But the idea that the only thing standing between kids from with such chaotic home lives and academic success is the quality of their teacher is wrong, and unfair. This, of course, is a common complaint about No Child Left Behind…

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