What Education Reform Can’t Fix
Joe Nocera discussed 13-year-old Saquan Townsend. Saquan had the opportunity to attend M.S. 223 in the Bronx, a school that is experiencing success atypical of New York City public schools. Principal Ramon Gonzalez has avoided having teachers imposed on him on the basis of seniority, created his own curriculums, micromanaged his students’ days and spent his budget on the personnel, programs and materials he believes most likely to help his kids.
Not only was Saquan fortunate to be in of the few successful public city schools with a strong leader, but he was also taken under the wing of a very determined and dedicated teacher, Emily Dodd.
Dodd pushed through Saquan’s disruptive nature and discovered that he was “unusually intelligent.” From then on, Dodd went above and beyond her job description, doing everything a school reformer could hope for. She sent him text messages every morning, urging him to come to school and gave him special help at every turn.
Despite these efforts, and the successful infrastructure of his school, there were too many outside forces working against Saquan.
With his busy mother working nights, she seemed indifferent to his education. Through her hard work, she was able to move her family out of their homeless shelter in the Bronx, back to Brooklyn. Nevertheless, this meant Saquan had a 2 hour commute to school. His attendance and effort slipped, and despite Dodd’s efforts, Saquan transferred to a school in Brooklyn.
Situations like this make Principal Gonzalez a skeptic of the public school reform movement. By and large, the reform movement claims that with a great teacher in the classroom and innovative, enhanced teaching methods, student performance will improve. However, as Saquan’s story shows, it takes a lot more than that. There are many difficult social truths that the reform movement does not address.
Working at an inner-city school in the Bronx, I see the same struggles as Mr. Gonzalez. Each year there is significant turnover at our school. Most of our students who transfer do so because their family is moving. Our parents are working two, possibly three jobs to move their children into a better neighborhood. This means that not only are our children constantly changing schools, but they have little guidance and stability at home.
Despite incentives, parents cannot make it to parent association meetings, and students fall so behind during the summer because most often, they do not read at home. Further, low income children often face more stress and illness than middle and upper class children.
Principal Gonzalez lamented about health factors that prevent his students from succeeding. “I can guarantee you right now that at least 20 percent of our kids need glasses,” he said. “They’re in their classrooms right now, staring at blackboards with no idea what they’re looking at. You can have the best teachers, the best curriculum and the greatest after-school programs in the world, but if your kids can’t see, what does it matter?”
So, my point is, good teaching is critical, but it is not the sole answer to overcoming the many obstacles that low income students face in school. The school reform movement cannot continue to ignore these other factors. I strongly believe that education can overcome poverty, but at the same time, poverty can inhibit the effects of a good education.
We can strive to make our schools better through improving pedagogy and firing bad teachers. However, even with the best schools, we have a lot to work on. Some low income students can and will succeed despite the factors against them, yet some will fail. We cannot blame these failures on teachers and administrators when in fact reforming the education system takes a lot more than fixing schools.
Photo credit: Flickr - JyoNah 8/27/2010