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Talking Around The Education Problem

Laurel Sturt, a self-described idealist, quit her fashion industry job at age 46 and entered teaching. She worked for a decade at a public elementary school in the South Bronx before she burned out. She tells The Atlantic, basically, that the disaster that is public schooling in inner cities is society’s fault, because it doesn’t care enough. More:

You taught in an area affected by poverty. How did the environment affect the students’ performance in school?

It was a very poor neighborhood with a lot of English-language learners who knew little or no English. With poverty comes this condition called Toxic Stress. It explains why the children were so difficult to handle, needy, and so behind in learning. When your dad is in prison or your mom is on drugs, or your mom drank alcohol when you were a fetus, if you didn’t sleep the night before because you were allowed to play video games all night, or maybe there was a shooting, your cognitive ability is harmed. It rewires their brain so they’re unable to employ working memory, which is what you use when you’re learning. We’re charged with being the parents of these kids, being the friends, the mentors. Teachers are given all these social responsibility towards children that aren’t ours. It’s a failure of the system to address the poverty that creates the achievement gap.

As you know, I believe that is entirely true. Twenty years ago my schoolteacher sister was telling me that it would be hard for me to imagine how messed up the lives of some of her sixth-grade students were — that is, how the adults in those kids’ lives were failing them. And she taught in one of the better schools in the state! Ruthie told me that our society expects public schoolteachers to be substitute parents and social workers more than educators. That’s not only unjust, in my opinion, but impossible. And I agree with Sturt on No Child Left Behind. It is crazy, and entirely unfair, to expect teachers to turn children who come from these horribly broken and impoverished families into scholars — and to punish the teachers when they can’t.

How can we solve this problem, according to Laurel Sturt? Well, for one, we could imitate Finland, and start requiring the building of housing for the poor among middle class and wealthy communities. We could hire “legions of psychologists in the school to get the kids the therapy they need.” And:

We need wraparound services, community services that give mothers prenatal care, home-visits, teaching parents to read to kids, health services, food. … [Students] need remediation, tiny class sizes, one-on-one attention—they need parenting, basically. Their parents are affected by the same Toxic Stress that they are, and it repeats itself in a cycle from parent to child.

I believe that, but where does this “Toxic Stress” come from? Is it just something floating in the air in those communities, or does it have causes that aren’t simply a lack of money? Sturt doesn’t say, at least not in this interview. She admits that even though she wants society to spend untold sums providing social services and mental health care for the masses, what the children really need is parents who care. But she cannot bring herself to say that these kids come from bad homes with bad parents who have made bad choices that are ruining their children’s lives. It’s easier to blame Society than blame the parents and the communities.

Well, I can say that, but that doesn’t get us very far. What are we supposed to do about it? There will never be enough money for the state to be the mother and father to children whose parents won’t fulfill their fundamental moral responsibilities to their kids. The bottom line is that this is not a problem that can be solved. A stable family is so critical to the socialization of children that the effects of its absence is obvious to schoolteachers.

I don’t mean to put Laurel Sturt down. She had the courage and the compassion to go into one of the poorest districts in New York City and try to teach elementary school kids, and to keep working at it for 10 years before finally burning out. You have to admire that. Yet my sense is that she knows, deep down, that there’s no way to fix schools in communities where the family has collapsed (absent the willingness of the people in those communities to change their lives), but she cannot give in to that kind of despair. So she says there’s nothing wrong with these schools that massive state intervention — throwing impossible sums of money at the problem, and creating social engineering programs and schemes at a level that would far outstrip the Great Society — wouldn’t fix. From the Amazon description of her book:

The author charges educators and parents to unite and organize at the grassroots level to fight for this civil rights issue of our time–the right to a decent education–coalescing around proven non-negotiables such as sufficient funding, universal pre-kindergarten, a rich curriculum free from high stakes testing, and the socioeconomic integration of schools.

Is there any shibboleth more enduring than the one that says money is the key to improving failing schools? She has got to know, in her heart, that even if all her proposed solutions were tried, it wouldn’t work either. But the alternative is too bleak. Some problems can’t be solved, only managed.

UPDATE: Ryan Booth posted an excellent comment:

As someone who has taught in inner-city schools, I can say that the kids can be taught. I did it, at least for my third and final year in the system, when over 60% of my students passed the 6th grade iLEAP math test, compared to 33% of the rest of the school.

The problem is that teaching in that environment is so difficult. Parents don’t care; I would call a mom when her son was acting up in class and she would tell me that that was my problem and that she had enough of him to deal with when he was at home. Yes, less than 20% of my students came from 2-parent homes, and I could usually tell who they were without looking at the records. Gangs, hopelessness, ignorance of the outside world (many of the kids I taught had never been outside the city limits of Baton Rouge, and most of their parents didn’t have their own transportation) — all these contributed to the problem. Unless you’ve taught in such a situation, you have no idea how emotionally difficult it is to teach such kids. You can put a lot of work into tutoring a kids who’s behind, only to see him smoke weed at school and get expelled. The demoralizing impact of this on the teachers then makes them put forth less effort, and the cycle deepens.

But good and dedicated teachers can make a big impact. There’s plenty of research that shows that, and there are plenty of charter schools that are proving it. The problem is that no one wants to teach at crummy schools. As I said, it’s extremely difficult, and a teacher can often earn more at a suburban school with far less hassle and far more peace of mind. So the good schools get the best teachers, because the good schools can be highly selective, and the crummy schools get the leftovers that nobody else wanted. My first year of teaching, the worst middle school in Baton Rouge started the year with five >substitutes in its math classrooms, because that school simply couldn’t find anyone to teach there. Those were the kids who needed help the most! No, throwing money at the problem won’t fix it at all, because the bureaucracy will simply eat it up, but I know that paying teachers bonuses to teach in the worst schools would have an impact. If a private foundation wanted to make a real impact, that’s what I’d suggest they do, instead of giving money to PBS and to stupid billboards that have words like “perseverance — pass it on.”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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