Teacher: We can help low-income students

Tennessee is offering $7,000 bonuses to high-performing teachers who work for two years in one of the state’s 83 chronically low-performing schools, reports the Commercial Appeal.

“These teachers will not be able to make a substantial difference in these communities, which have economic deprivation, massive poverty and are disconnected from the fiber of society,” says Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association.

It’s difficult to teach students who live in poverty, but teachers can make a difference, writes Casie Jones, who teaches expelled or recently jailed students in an alternative program in Memphis.

My students struggle with poor attendance, behavioral issues, emotional challenges, and below-grade reading levels. Many students enter my classroom with failing grades and apathetic attitudes toward school.

However, I make contact with parents and demonstrate to students that I care about them personally, and this year I have even seen a drastic reduction in discipline referrals in my classroom. I also watched my seniors create four-page research papers after saying they couldn’t do it. Now, many of them are graduating when they thought they’d already missed their last chance.

More than half the class scored proficient or higher. That is a “substantial difference,” she writes.

Students, teachers, and administrators cannot use poverty as an excuse. We have to see through it and teach students how to maneuver around their obstacles. Our optimism becomes their hope.

Teachers who respect their students will earn their students respect, Jones writes. In her classroom, “the economic and racial barriers are down because we chose to take them down.”

Jones’ work was cited by Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman in a Commercial Appeal commentary responding to Williams’ lack of enthusiasm for the bonus program. “Children in poverty can achieve at high levels when we adults give them the opportunities they deserve,” Huffman wrote.

Teachers will lose all but $2,000 of the bonus if their value-added scores fall at a low-performing school, notes Gary Rubinstein in Huffman vs. Straw Man.

20% of schools serve high-poverty kids

One in five public schools was a high-poverty school in 2011, according to the U.S. Education Department. That means 75 percent or more of students qualify for a subsidized lunch. The number of high-poverty schools increased by 60 percent, according to Hechinger Report‘s Education By The Numbers. In 2000, only one in eight public schools was deemed to be high poverty.

According to this chart, a family of four could earn up to $42,643 to qualify for a reduced-price lunch and up to $29,965 for a free lunch.

It’s way past time to measure poverty directly and throw in other socioeconomic factors, such as parents’ education. The school lunch figures are skewed at the high school level: Many kids don’t ask for a free lunch, even if they’re eligible.

Bad memories, good stories

Raised by a bipolar, alcoholic father and a (probably) bipolar hoarder mother, Jeannette Walls learned to spin good stories out of bad memories, writes the New York Times in a profile. The Glass Castle, a very powerful book, became an “instant classic.” Walls now lives with her husband on a farm in Virginia. Her mother lives in a cottage on the grounds.

Walls’s childhood was peripatetic, to say the least — her parents had 27 addresses in the first five years of their marriage. They were not only running out on the rent, but her father was convinced that the F.B.I. was after them. They finally landed in Rex’s Appalachian hometown, Welch, W.Va., in a three-room house without plumbing or heat, infested with snakes and rats. Walls says she still has nightmares about the yellow bucket the six of them used each night as a toilet.

“The Glass Castle,” beautifully written in deceptively simple prose, gets its name from the dream house Rex promised to build his family. He drew up the blueprints; he just needed to discover gold so he could pay for it.

Here’s how the book begins: At 3, Walls is on a chair in front of the stove in the family’s trailer, boiling hot dogs, because her mother is painting and can’t be bothered to cook. Walls’s pink-tutu dress catches fire, and her stomach, ribs and chest are badly burned. She is hospitalized for six weeks, until her father, irritated with the uppity doctors, breaks her out and takes her home. When she returns to the chair to cook more hot dogs, her mother says to her approvingly: “Good for you. You’ve got to get right back in the saddle.” Then she continues painting.

Her father died in 1994 at 59. Though he stole her savings to buy liquor — and once tried to pimp her out to a stranger in a bar — Walls thinks he “gave her the confidence to succeed.”

Rose Mary is more of an opaque figure; laser-sharp one day, maddeningly obtuse the next. Not to mention stunningly selfish. Once, when her children went hungry, as they often did, she saved a Hershey bar for herself.

Walls has accepted that her mother couldn’t care for herself, much less for her children. But she thinks there’s a reason that she and her sister never had children.

We all have our baggage, and I think the trick is not resisting it but accepting it, understanding that the worst experience has a valuable gift wrapped inside if you’re willing to receive it.” She met my eye. “So, O.K., Mom kept the chocolate bar. But she gave me a lot of good material.”

Walls went on to write Half-Broke Horses, a “true-life novel” about her grandmother. Her new book is her first work of fiction, The Silver Star. Even then, it deals with familiar themes: Two girls, 12 and 15, are abandoned by their mother and move to their parents’ hometown in Virginia.

Is it poverty or parenting?

Education reformers are accused of blaming schools for achievement gaps caused by poverty and inequality, writes Mike Petrilli on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

If the issue is poverty, as in not enough money, then the solution is to give low-income families extra cash in the form of welfare, the Earned Income Tax Credit or a  minimum wage hike, he writes. But “research and experience” tells us that won’t erase achievement gaps. Kids who are born in poverty and grow up in poverty share certain traits:

 Most were born to single mothers, and their fathers have been absent from the start, or by the time they turn two or three;

Most of their mothers were teenagers or in their early 20s when they gave birth;

Most of their mothers have very little education—a high school diploma or less–and thus few marketable skills;

Many of their mothers suffer from mental illness or addiction or both;

More money might ease poor mothers’ stress or enable them to afford “marginally better childcare or preschool, or books, or educational games,” he writes.

But will it erase the huge gaps in early vocabulary development, non-cognitive skill-building, and other essential school readiness tasks between these disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers? Between these kids and their age-mates born into two-parent families? With highly-educated mothers and fathers? With parents who were in their 30s when they started families, instead of their teens?

To believe so, you’d have to put as much faith in cash transfers and social services as some reformers put in schools. You’d have to believe in miracles.

The issue isn’t just poverty, Petrilli argues. It’s parenting. Children are “growing up without fathers, and they are doing terribly,” especially black boys. Schools could provide “transformational” interventions that give children “the hope, confidence, and skills to find a different path.” If not schools, then what?

In absolute dollars, the U.S. child poverty rate isn’t much higher than the rate in Finland.

bridging-differences-blog-chart-poverty.jpg

Source: “Poor People in Rich Nations: The United States in Comparative Perspective,” Timothy Smeeding, 2006

But the U.S. looks  very bad when it comes to fatherless families:

bridging-differences-blog-chart-single-parent.jpg

Source: World Family Map.

 

Parents are the silver bullet for kids in poverty

Parents, not teachers, are the “silver bullet” for kids in poverty, writes Pérsida Himmele in Charting My Own Course on Ed Week Teacher.

Her immigrant father, who had an eighth-grade education, asked all seven of his children the same question. “To what college you go?”

 Though we lived in the poorest neighborhood, surrounded by rampant drug use, teen pregnancy, and violence, we all followed through on his expectations for us. Our highest earned degrees consist of two PhDs, two master’s degrees, one theology degree, one bachelor’s degree, and one high school diploma (earned by my sister, who has special needs). Our success was no accident.

Now an education professor, Himmele tells future teachers to help parents understand that their expectations are likely to determine their children’s future.

Do the parents in high-poverty areas know that the schools can’t educate their children alone? Do parents of children at-risk know that the odds are against their children, unless they start pressuring their children to do well in school, and pressuring the school to do well by their child? Do Latino and Black families know that in some urban programs, their children’s chances for completing high school are less than 50 percent? Do they realize that if their child drops out he or she will be working twice as hard for less than half the pay as compared to their college-bound friends? Do they know that a dropout is eight times more likely to end up in prison than a high school graduate?

She tells parents in high-poverty areas about the choices: “Your kids can work twice as hard for a little while, or they will work twice as hard for the rest of their lives.”

At San Jose’s high-poverty Overfelt High School, two-thirds of students who started four years ago have earned a diploma. Many of the “miracle” graduates heading for college grew up in immigrant families, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Jessica Nuñez, who started school speaking no English, won a scholarship to Berkeley.

Ruben Contreras Rios, 17, received a full scholarship to Santa Clara University, where he’ll major in mechanical and aerospace engineering. “The comfort he found in science and math, when ostracized as a new immigrant, is paying off.”

Juan Guzmán, who “retreated into books when classmates teased him for his immigrant accent and clothes, hopes to become a teacher like Natalia Baldwin, an Overfelt teacher.

With Baldwin’s encouragement, Cesar Torres raised his grades from F’s to A’s. He plans to study business at Chico State and become a billionaire, so his parents won’t have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to work long hours at tough jobs.

Ed Trust: Low-income kids hit ‘glass ceiling’

While low achievers are catching up, racial achievement gaps are widening at the advanced level, concludes Education Trust in a new report, Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Achievement for Low-Income Students and Students of Color.

Over time, the percent of students scoring at the “below basic” level of performance has declined markedly. . . . the declines are biggest for black, Hispanic, and low-income students. Yet, while the percent of white and higher income students scoring at the “advanced” level has increased significantly in recent years, there has been little progress among students of color and low-income students, so gaps at this level have widened. . . . In 2011, for example, roughly 1 in 10 white fourth-graders reached advanced in math, compared to only 1 in 50 Hispanic fourth-graders and 1 in 100 black fourth-graders.

Poverty is not the only issue, Ed Trust reports. In some grades and subjects, higher-income black students are no more likely than low-income whites to test as advanced. For example, 3 percent of each of these groups reached advanced in fourth-grade math in 2011.

Could earlier kindergarten be the achievement gap solution?

Here’s a mostly filler piece from Julia Lawrence over at EducationNews. I use it merely as a launching point for a slightly different inquiry.

During his State of the Union speech last year, President Barack Obama called for the federal and state lawmakers to work together to offer early pre-school to every child. Once the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed, “every” turned out to mean more like everyone from families making 200% of the federal poverty line or less.

Some critics say that sending children to school at the age of four does not work. The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, on March 20th new results were announced from a study of nine-to-11-year-olds in New Jersey. This report found that disadvantaged children who had attended pre-school had better literacy, language, maths and science skills. And two years of pre-kindergarten were better than one.

Starting schooling early doesn’t just have academic benefits, but social ones as well. Those who begin learning at an earlier age are less likely to commit crimes and end up in prison later in life.

Let’s first remind ourselves, then remind ourselves again, that what we are talking about is earlier kindergarten for “disadvantaged” children. (And let’s also remind ourselves that when we say “disadvantaged”, what at least some of us really mean is “Black and Hispanic”.) 49% of students will always be below average, and people could be fine with that. But what drives a lot of people crazy is the fact that what passes for academic performance (as measured by the NAEP, mostly) seems in startlingly short supply in student “populations” defined in terms of their race or income. It’s especially, I think, the race thing that gets people in their gut, but as a practical matter we often focus more on the socioeconomic issues because that’s a less politically charged terrain.

So here’s what we’ve got: Student group A has crappy test scores. Student group B has good test scores. There’s a gap, and we want to close it.

What do we know? Well, we know that the typical member of Student group B gets read to at home, has access to books, has school pushed on them by their parents, has parents who themselves have at least some sort of academic disposition and training, and grows up around other students who are similarly situated. They tend not to be shot at by their classmates on a regular basis, and oftentimes it seems that their family situation is somewhat stable. There may even be a father around. They have interesting toys, and go on trips to places like museums and factories and orchards. They have a quiet place to study, and they tend to get three or four balanced meals a day.

These seem to be the relevant differences. We can call them “advantages” because they seem to give children a leg up on doing well in school, and their absence tends to hurt school performance. Typical members of Student Group A, on the other hand, don’t get these “advantages” — that’s why they’re called “disadvantaged”. A headline that says something like “disadvantaged kids do worse in school” is actually something of a truism: the reason they are called disadvantaged is because they happen to have the characteristics that we have statistically correlated with doing poorly in school, and lack the ones that we think benefit academic achievement.

By way of analogy, if it turned out that 100% of low-performing students grew up in blue-, green-, and red-painted bedrooms, while 100% of high performers grew up in yellow-painted bedrooms, growing up in a yellow bedroom would be an advantage. And those “children of darker colors” who grew up in blue, green, and red rooms would be “disadvantaged”. And it shouldn’t surprise us that, when we go looking for disadvantages in this way, that the disadvantaged don’t do as well.

Now, I’m just musing here, but it seems like the VERY FIRST thing to do if you wanted to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged kids is give the disadvantaged kids some advantages. Then they wouldn’t be disadvantaged, and if they weren’t disadvantaged, well… then at least in theory there would be no achievement gap. So how to do that? Well, “advantages” seem to track with growing up in a certain sort of family. So the most obvious way is to take the kids away from “disadvantaged” families at birth and give them to “advantaged” families to raise. No raising kids for you if you’re statistically suspect: there’s social good to promote. Trust me, that’s the way to fix the achievement gap.

That probably won’t go over so well, though. (For some reason I’m imagining cries of “cultural genocide”, although it seems pretty clear that the “advantages” we wish to promote and the “disadvantages” we wish to eradicate are profoundly cultural.) So let’s look for a less drastic solution that accomplishes more or less the same thing.

Howsabout this: If we can’t take the A-kids kids completely away from their families at birth, we just take the kids away, at an incredibly early age, and have those kids “raised” in an environment which simulates the “advantagedness” of Student Group B? In the A-Group’s cognitively formative years, we’ll give them a bright, busy, happy linguistically-charged environment that sort of will be like the environment that the B-Group already grows up in. We can call it “early kindergarten” at first, and then after that, we’ll just call it “school”. Eventually, we’ll call the whole thing “school”. And we won’t take the kids out of their homes completely — just for most of the day. Their disadvantaged parents will still be (mostly) responsible for clothing and feeding and the like, and for providing a place to sleep. This also reduces expenses.

Will that close, or at least narrow the achievement gap?

Sure. I don’t see why it wouldn’t.

Superintendent suspended for poverty quotes

Oklahoma’s new A-F report card for schools closely tracks the poverty rate, reports the Daily Oklahoman. However, the one-school Ryal district — all low-income, mostly Native American, 40 percent in special ed — earned a B.

Now Superintendent Scott Trower, who turned around a school ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state, has been suspended by the school board. He talked too vividly about Ryal families’ multi-generational poverty in an Oklahoman story on how Ryal is teaching very disadvantaged students.

“Sometimes students climb onto the school bus wearing socks but no shoes, even in the wintertime,” the story starts.

(Trower) drives down into the Ryal Bottoms, a floodplain of the North Canadian River where many students live.

A maze of dirt roads is lined by tangled barbed wire and gnarly scrub oaks.

“Meth and alcoholism rule down here,” Trower said.

Some students live in prefabricated sheds without electricity, plumbing or heat, said Trower, who was hired in May, 2011. Many parents don’t work. Some parents don’t see the need for their children to go to high school.

“They’re going to go home tonight and it’s going to be freezing cold,” Trower said. “They won’t eat until they come back to school the next day. And we expect them to score proficient or higher on state tests? It’s survival. It’s just basic survival.”

At the K-8 school, which serves about 70 students, each student has a personal learning plan. Students feel cared for, Trower told the newspaper.

Teachers pick students up in the mornings and take them home at night. They feed the kids, buy them clothes.

Trower got grants to buy iPads for each student, which has helped teachers personalize learning.

In the kindergarten class, students sat with headphones on, listening to phonics sounds and picking out letters and words on a screen.

Last year, the average student was two grade levels behind in reading. Now, most have caught up, reports the Oklahoman.  “Kids will rise to the expectations,” Trower said.

Locals say students have shoes and most live in homes with electricity, writes John Thompson on This Week in Education. The Principal Chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has called on Trower to resign.

Obama’s universal pre-k isn’t universal

President Obama’s pledged “to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America” in the State of the Union speech. His “early learning” plan doesn’t do that, which is a good thing. Obama is focusing on disadvantaged children who may not be learning enough at home to be ready for school.

In short, universal pre-k isn’t universal, writes Garance Franke-Ruta in The Atlantic. Sharing costs with the states, the president would try to improve preschool quality and expand access for four-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. (That tops out at $46,100 for a family of four.) He’d also expand Early Head Start for low-income children from birth through age 3.

Forty-two percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in taxpayer-funded, center-based preschool.

Obama also proposes expanding home visits to high-risk families — young, single mothers — by nurses and social workers. Visits by public health nurses appear to lower the risk of child abuse and neglect — and increase the use of birth control.

Early education helps disadvantaged children — for awhile, writes Emily Richmond, noting the president’s call for states to add full-day kindergarten. She researched that issue in 2007.

The greatest benefits to full-day kindergarten seemed to be for minority children and those growing up in poverty, who were more likely to otherwise arrive unprepared for first grade. But the gains trickled off unless those full-day kindergarten students continued to receive the tailored instructional programs and services they needed as they advanced into the higher grades.

Here’s how I summed the data at the time: “Full-day kindergarten may be a springboard to academic success, but it’s apparently of little use if students are diving into an empty pool.”

Except for a few boutique programs, preschool gains don’t last.  By third grade, Head Start graduates do no better  in school or in social and emotional skills than similar kids who weren’t in the program, according to a federal study that was not released for four years.

Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst asks if we can be “hard-headed” about funding preschool.

Head Start spends about twice as much per child per year as states ($8K per child per year for Head Start vs. $4K for state pre-K). And Head Start includes many program components that are advocated by early childhood experts such as health, nutrition, and parental involvement that are much less prevalent in state pre-K. If a year of Head Start does not improve achievement in elementary school, should we assume that a year of state pre-K does?

Universal pre-k in Georgia produced very slight gains (for the neediest children) at high cost, Whitehurst writes. A Texas pre-k program produced slightly better gains for low-income children.

Core standards will boost equal opportunity

“Millions of young people are having their right to a world-class education violated every day, writes sociologist Peter W. Cookson Jr, president of Ideas Without Borders, in The Quick and the EdCommon standards will advance equal educational opportunity, he argues.

Cookson studied five high schools serving “very different economic and social communities.”

If a student is not lucky enough to attend a high school located in an upper-middle or middle-class neighborhood, he or she is likely to get a watered-down, uninspiring, and inadequate set of academic choices—often taught in a hit-or-miss manner. If a student attends a school in an area of concentrated poverty, his or her course of study often consists of worksheets, out-of-date textbooks, and more worksheets.

Common Core State Standards won’t solve the problem, but it will help, Cookson believes.