Even if teachers give 110 percent, can 100 percent of kids succeed?

Can schools provide a high quality education to every child mired in poverty with little family supports or is that putting too great a burden on schools to fix what society won’t?

What we have here tonight is an excellent debate. I posted a guest column last night by Ed Chang, executive director of redefinED atlanta, a non-profit committed to ensuring that all Atlanta students have access to high-quality schools.

In examining whether Atlanta Public Schools is improving, Chang said the question we should all be asking is: “Are our schools improving at a pace that will allow every child in every Atlanta community to receive a high-quality education within the next generation?”

University of Georgia professor and frequent Get Schooled contributor Peter Smagorinsky thinks that’s a specious goal – because a high-quality education demands inputs outside of what teachers and schools alone can provide.

Many people on the blog deny that poverty is an obstacle to educational attainment, sharing their own rags to riches experience or that of their parents or grandparents. And when I started reporting on schools, I thought a dedicated and determined teacher could conquer all.

That was before I saw how many kids were coming from homes without any books and how few had parents, who, even if they lacked an education, recognized its importance and made it a priority. I grew up with kids whose parents did not all graduate high school, but expected their children to earn that diploma and beyond.

Yes, I had friends whose fathers were alcoholics or mothers were lost to undiagnosed mental illness, but they often had grandmothers who lived upstairs or aunts and uncles down the street who delivered them to school and held the families together. Somebody in the household was a functioning adult.

With fragmented families and deeper poverty, fewer children have that today. As APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said in a meeting with the AJC education writers, the poverty among her students is more resistant because it is “intergenerational. We have to end the cycle that these families been have stuck in for a very long time.”

WIth that introduction, here is Dr. Smagorinsky’s response to Ed Chang.

By Peter Smagorinsky

A recent Get Schooled essay considered the question of whether or not the recent Milestones results provide Atlantans with good news or bad about their local schools. In interpreting the results, author Ed Chang poses "a bigger, more fundamental question that we should all be asking: Are our schools improving at a pace that will allow every child in every Atlanta community to receive a high-quality education within the next generation?"

The idea that no child will be left behind, or that every child will succeed, often permeates policy ideals imposed on teachers. But how realistic is it to assert that a school system enrolling over 50,000 students, in a city in which 24 percent of the residents live in poverty, will achieve a 100 percent success rate in providing a high-quality education within 20 years, with high-quality education defined by students' scores on the Georgia Milestones exam?

The implication is that if a high-quality education elevating test scores does not become a reality for 100 percent of these students, the schools and their teachers are to blame. I find that premise to be untenable. It assumes the only thing that matters in a student’s education is what happens in classrooms. That view overlooks a lot of issues that compromise what is possible for any teacher to achieve with students whose lives are affected by poverty, which is the case for a good percentage of kids enrolled in Atlanta schools.

Millions of US students, for instance, are homeless or move frequently, making life a daily challenge and school an afterthought for many students in Atlanta. Imagine living every day without confidence you will have a place to sleep that night, or the next. Would preparing for the Milestones be at the forefront of your mind?

Schools themselves may be decrepit and unsanitary when taxpayers don't support them with sufficient funding to provide students and teachers with healthy environments. The infamous Trenton, NJ, public school scandal featuring brown and heavily leaded running water demonstrates the conditions faced by poorly funded public schools. Many Atlanta-area schools are in bad shape, with no funding for maintenance provided by taxpayers. How can 100 percent of the students get a high-quality education under such conditions?

Students' health is a factor well outside teachers' control. One study found that North Carolina provides one nurse per 1,000 students, a serious shortage given the relation between health and poverty. A nutritious diet contributes to good health, yet roughly 2 million Georgians live in "food deserts": large areas in which grocery stores will not establish locations. People living in these areas rarely own cars and so shop at nearby convenience stores, where the cuisine is limited to overpriced junk food that may contribute to all manner of health and developmental problems.

Imagine if you are born to a parent whose diet during pregnancy was limited to junk food, then living on the same diet yourself for reasons outside your control. You might easily enter the world with a low birth weight, a predictor of a difficult life. Imagine sitting in a class with 35 other students, head pounding from a throbbing toothache, wearing yesterday's clothes, hungry and homeless, and having to take a quiz on whether a literary work exhibits first-degree or second-degree dramatic irony. Imagine being the teacher of such a class tasked with providing a high-quality education for 100 percent of your students.

Both physical and mental health can be affected by the conditions of poverty. Some kids are born into tremendous disadvantages through the conduct of their parents before they are born or through unhealthy environments created by people who benefit from their poverty. The case of the Flint, Michigan, water supply's government-engineered pollution scandal in 2016 demonstrates the ways in which people living in low-SES circumstances can be unconscious victims of other people's maliciousness and duplicity.

Living and attending school in unsanitary conditions. Feeling immense stress from all directions. Having limited access to doctors, medications, and health guidance due to location and the lack of insurance. Surviving on a diet of nutritionally vacant foods, including the free meals provided by schools that often are heavy on empty calories and short on substance. Have you tried to study when sick and hungry? What would you do if sickness and hunger were your typical state of body and mind?

Take a school full of kids who have eaten few healthy meals in their lives, put them in chaotic surroundings in and out of school, surround them with threatening environments, make academic literacies remote from their daily worlds, have them change residences routinely, and it’s a wonder that they get to school at all. Make the school itself unhealthy and unsanitary, and see how you do when you demand a 100 percent success rate for high-quality education. If you don’t get it, blame the teachers.

Of course, some people born into poverty, through remarkable fortune and clarity of vision, do manage to succeed academically and enter the mainstream economy. My father and mother were among them, although they benefitted from domestic stability and daily meals, if not financial riches. People born into affluence often believe that it's possible to escape poverty through good decisions and high character. But the typical person is not so constituted. And typical people are what teachers find in their classrooms.

I’m sure Mr. Chang had good intentions in writing his essay. I’d love to hold ideals in which everyone succeeded. But you have to ignore a lot of reality to maintain such a chimerical view of the possibilities schools have for overcoming what surrounds kids in the rest of their lives.

Blaming the teachers for their students’ test scores is easy; and reducing the quality of education to test scores, that’s easy, too.

Providing better conditions for education is much harder, and requires sacrifices that are felt at tax time. It requires compassion in supporting public institutions that make a quality education, embedded in safe and healthy living conditions, possible. I’m saddened our nation no longer believes these qualities matter enough to invest our own riches in them.

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