I am a longtime fan of journalist Joe Nocera’s writings. A business writer for many years, Nocera now has a column in the New York Times and was inspired to write about a 13-year-old student featured in a larger New York Times magazine story about a dedicated middle school principal.
Nocera tackles a problem that we often discuss here: Can schools overcome family backgrounds and parental indifference?
We all agree that family is not destiny. A child should not be written off because of sorry parents. But family is an important factor and sometimes it can be the deciding one. There are inspiring stories of students overcoming their backgrounds, and schools have to recognize that all students have potential, even those whose parents never attend conferences or see to it that their children go to school.
Through a truancy project, a friend volunteered to work with a young mother whose 9-year-old had missed nearly a third of the school year and was facing retention. My friend learned that there was nothing wrong with the child, no chronic health issues that kept her out of school. The mother allowed the girl to stay up until 1 in the morning watching TV, and both mother and daughter then slept until at least 10 a.m.. The mom did not have a car so the child would miss the entire day.
So, my friend bought them alarm clocks, took the mom to the school to talk to the principal and teachers and called the apartment in the mornings to wake them. As much as my friend tried, the mother never changed and eventually moved to a different apartment and school district. That was eight years ago. I would bet that 9-year-old is now a high school dropout. Short of taking that child away from her mother, I am not sure what could have changed that trajectory.
Here are the relevant passages from the Nocera column, although I encourage you to read the entire piece and the magazine story.
Saquan lands at M.S. 223 because his family has been placed in a nearby homeless shelter. (His mother fled Brooklyn out of fear that another son was in danger of being killed.) At first, he is so disruptive that a teacher, Emily Dodd, thinks he might have a mental disability. But working with him one on one, Dodd discovers that Saquan is, to the contrary, unusually intelligent — “brilliant” even.
From that point on, Dodd does everything a school reformer could hope for. She sends him text messages in the mornings, urging him to come to school. She gives him special help. She encourages him at every turn. For awhile, it seems to take.
Meanwhile, other forces are pushing him in another direction. His mother, who works nights and barely has time to see her son, comes across as indifferent to his schooling. Though she manages to move the family back to Brooklyn, the move means that Saquan has an hour-and-a-half commute to M.S. 223. As his grades and attendance slip, Dodd offers to tutor him. To no avail: He finally decides it isn’t worth the effort, and transfers to a school in Brooklyn.
The point is obvious, or at least it should be: Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles Saquan faces when he is not in school. Nor is he unusual. Mahler recounts how M.S. 223 gives away goodie bags to lure parents to parent association meetings, yet barely a dozen show up. He reports that during the summer, some students fall back a full year in reading comprehension — because they don’t read at home.
Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute lists dozens of reasons why this is so, from the more frequent illness and stress poor students suffer, to the fact that they don’t hear the large vocabularies that middle-class children hear at home.
Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant. “There is no question that family engagement can matter,” said Klein when I spoke to him. “But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let’s go home. We don’t yet know how much education can overcome poverty,” he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. “To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”
That last sentence strikes me as the key to the reformers’ resistance: To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. Without question, school reform has already achieved some real, though moderate, progress.
What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won’t fix everything. Though some poor students will succeed, others will fail. Demonizing teachers for the failures of poor students, and pretending that reforming the schools is all that is needed, as the reformers tend to do, is both misguided and counterproductive.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog