Commentary: Schools, Children and Poverty
The St. Louis Post Dispatch recently published an article by Mr. Krehmeyer reporting on the link between poverty and lack of school success. It indicated that with various actions we can do a lot to improve school results in poverty areas. I think that thought has merit. I commend what the author, Chris Krehmeyer, has to say. However in my mind the real issue is “do we really want to erase poverty and do we have the will to truly turn around failing school systems and help children out of poverty?” I ask because I have heard the words so many times. There may be a way to start but it is time intensive and takes commitment.
In 1965 when President Johnson, with much effort and against much opposition, got passed ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we saw the beginning of a real effort to help those families most in need. New Curricula and programs came into being, along with revamped housing and other assistance for the underclass.
That act had measurable objectives and adequate yearly progress reports designed to specifically monitor all programs. The resources available were extraordinary; $1,000,000,000 per year for those schools with a high concentration of poverty families. In addition, the plan called for the development of a curriculum for bilingual education, counseling for students, early childhood program (Head Start) and much more. Johnson claimed that the passage of this legislation was the most significant positive educational step ever taken, since efforts to do so had been attempted beginning in 1870.
Personnel from city school systems and other schools that qualified went to work writing proposals, receiving meaningful funds and putting into place programs they thought would be successful.
That was the beginning of the successful Head Start program for young children. Teachers went through extensive training including early childhood development so they would understand how children develop so that they could work effectively with preschool children. And each child received individual attention.
The fundamental philosophy behind this program was that if poor children received additional and effective educational services it would move them ahead intellectually and bring them to equal levels of their more economically advantaged peers.
So, where are we today? One of the main activities resulting from the ESEA act of 1965 has been yearly State assessments. We are aware of the entire furor around these tests throughout the country. Extensive test preparation (which takes time away from the curriculum), cheating by school districts and teachers, has not shown profound growth by students. Once again, we are looking at the reauthorization and funding of the ESEA program.
Until we can show what works for children, especially poverty children, I suggest we use available resources to teach poor children on a one to one basis for a short period of time each day. We know that works. Yes, this is difficult, but with the resources that are available for tutors and aides I believe that this strategy is an effective one. I will bet the results will be beneficial, and once poor children learn, that is their first step out of poverty.
I hope that school districts with large numbers of poverty children and families will give this strategy of one on one a try. It is a recipe for success.