Thursday, September 10, 2009

No Surprises Here

Sadly, I was not surprised by the lead story in Sunday’s New York Times: “Surge in Homeless Pupils Strains Schools.” I have seen it at our school—more kids homeless, more on free lunch, more not able to purchase supplies. Our enrollment has been more erratic this early in the year than I can remember as families move in and out in the search for employment.

And America continues to fare poorly when it comes to measures of childhood welfare. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) recent survey of childhood well-being places the US in the bottom third of nations in many indicators and notes that childhood poverty rates in the US are double the average of the OECD nations.

Of course, school people don’t need international comparisons or the New York Times to tell us about the needs of our children. When the economy catches a cold, schools, especially those serving our poorest children, catch the flu. Along with social service workers, teachers are on the front lines of helping our most vulnerable citizens navigate economic dislocation.

We get little or no credit for doing this work—from making sure kids eat lunch and breakfast to helping kids find jobs to walking first generation college goers through the application process. Instead, in this so-called era of accountability, we are told over and over again that the only thing that counts are test scores on fairly low level measures of thinking and knowledge.

It is time to hold the entire nation accountable for the plight of our children. From health care to nutrition to housing America needs to be held accountable for a childhood poverty rate of nearly 22%, a rating of 25 out of 30 in terms of educational possessions held by children, the 4th worst infant mortality rate and 5th worst child mortality rate amongst industrialized nations we can do better.

When it comes to schools, it is time to hold America accountable as well for the educational apartheid where some children find themselves in schools with swimming pools, chemistry labs, and well prepared and supported teachers and others are in schools with few books, permanent substitutes for teachers, and crumbling facilities. For whatever reason we have allowed educational equity to be reduced to equalizing test scores. This is wrong, we can do better.

I am proud to be part of a school community that serves all comers, that provides for children who have very little, and that refuses to allow any child’s needs to go unnoticed. I am also pleased that a new campaign has been launched, Rethinking Learning, that addresses directly the issue of fairness and equity. It is past time that we return to the promise that all children will have equal access to a high quality education no matter where they live, what they have, or the color of their skin.

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