When I really started taking an interest in all the many things that IEA does, our president at the time suggested I accompany her to an economic summit put on by IEA at the Union League Club in Chicago.
The keynote speaker at the event was former Commerce Secretary Robert Reich. The presentation greatly changed the way I perceive life in this country and the lives of the students in my classroom.
One of the key topics Reich concentrated on was the impact of stagnant wages on our country, forcing more homes to have two wage earners to make up for wages that did not keep pace with inflation. Despite the uptick in dual income households, we’ve reached the point where even that isn’t enough.
With that in mind, last week’s sobering news that the majority of U.S. public students are living in poverty was unsurprising. It’s time to stop dancing around this issue. We need a serious conversation about the impact poverty has on education.
Every one of us has seen poverty’s impact on our kids. I’ve been blessed to never have had to deal with the ravages of poverty, on a large scale, in either my professional or personal life. However, I’ve seen its horrific impact on students and loved ones. It’s devastating.
This is where education reform comes in. Throughout my entire 15 years as an educator, and years as a student, I’ve seen waves of legislation and initiatives fly by. All were highly touted, yet none of them provided the magic bullet needed to permanently fix public education.
“Vouchers are the way to go, let’s get these kids out of public schools!”
“Oh wait, that showed no positive impact, hmmm.”
“Let’s try charter schools! That’s the magic solution! “
“That didn’t work, either. Huh… “
“Let’s try waves of crushing high stakes testing that strip resources from programs, but we’ll hold those teachers accountable, dagnabit.”
“Heck, that didn’t work either, well…”
“Let’s demonize teachers and those demonic unions who have the audacity to advocate for fair working conditions and adequate school funding. That’ll fix schools! Added bonus: It’s just plain entertaining to badmouth unions in general.”
“Ok, why is no one going into teacher preparation programs anymore?”
This could go on for hours. There’s one thing that’s clear, though. It’s time to stop treating the symptoms and have the difficult conversation about how to address the cause.
Think of it like this: I have been having a major dental issue involving hideous levels of pain, which is likely related to my overly enthusiastic dog’s bony head (long story).
Two months ago I noticed a problem with it, so I started using ibuprofen. That didn’t work. As the symptoms worsened, I went to the dentist. The dentist found a tiny cavity, but was perplexed as to what was causing this level of pain.
So, she prescribed some medicine. It helped temporarily, but as soon as I went off it, things immediately spiraled out of control again. What is the next step?
If you were using the current logic that education reformers are using, it would be to give me a test that measures my level of pain. Since it didn’t improve, this must mean it is purely the dentist’s fault. Additionally, those corrupt monsters in the American Dental Association probably should be wearing some of the blame, too.
To punish her for her shocking incompetency, she should have her funding decreased because she didn’t treat it correctly. She’ll definitely do a much better job if they take away funding so she can’t fix her x-ray machine or invest in new technology.
That’s not the case. The dentist is not to blame for the pain coming back. There obviously is a root (no pun intended) cause that needs to be fixed. Otherwise, nothing is going to get better.
However, the law would imply that my problems are purely because my dentist wasn’t working hard enough. It’s her fault that the problem wasn’t solved and she should be given fewer resources.
So while I continue to spend each day in major pain and things get worse, the root cause goes unaddressed. Instead, the dentist is punished. That does nothing but ignore the fact that there’s a massive structural problem that is causing the problem in the first place.
It also defies the logic used in any other industry on the planet. If there’s an underlying issue, it needs to be addressed. The rest will simply mask the symptoms as things continue to get worse.
It’s time to address what is causing the problem instead of trying to simply mask the symptoms. As a country and state, we need to stop pretending there isn’t a pervasive underlying problem which is causing these issues.
It’s really pretty simple. It’s really hard for a parent to help a kid get their homework done if they are trying to travel to their third or fourth job. And you can say those folks are lucky; at least they have been able to find a way provide for their family.
It’s even more insidious when you think about the families without livable incomes. It is estimated that child hunger rates are growing. In the United States, it could be as high as 20 percent. It’s also noteworthy that the five states with the highest child poverty are also right-to-work states.
Recently, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced that we need to be ready to make shared sacrifices. I think we all know what this means. Schools and the poor are about to get socked again. I really hope that I’m wrong.
Somehow, the most vulnerable citizens of this state are being characterized as leeches and not people who need help. That’s terrifying. Nothing is going to change until we start addressing that poverty infests every aspect of our society.
We live in the most wealthy nation in the history of humanity, while tens of millions of parents lack the basic means to provide for their kids. Yet, we continue to find ways to make the poor the enemy, despite the fact that it’s clearly ripping our society apart.
There is nowhere more evident than in our public schools. Let’s stop dancing around the issue, pointing fingers, and spreading blame. Every one of us learned in school that, at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy, is “physiological needs.”
Yet when it comes to ed reform and our society, we want to ignore that fact.
People are starting to understand the link between achievement and poverty levels. A quick Google search will show the number of studies around the country with data from various regions of the United States. Let’s not let this movement go by the wayside.
It has to be addressed.
I sure hope that, when it comes to shared sacrifice, those who have the least to give aren’t the most punished.
I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts in the section below. You can also follow me on Twitter @paulgamboa. Thanks for reading.
Paul Gamboa is a teacher who is currently serving as president of the Indian Prairie Education Association.