Since becoming an alternative ed teacher, I've spent a lot of time thinking about poverty and it's role in our schools. Today, I attended a session at the Maine Education Association fall conference that correlated the Govenor's (pathetic) grading system with poverty. Almost completely, the lower a school's free and reduced lunch rate, the higher it's grade, and vice versa. For all our talk as a society about everyone having equal chances at success, we have absolute proof that this is not true, brought to you by a man who claims to believe that everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps while in actuality has worked hard to ensure the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.
It suddenly struck me that the real reason I've been hesitant to accept the shift to a standards based education system is because it's a formalized way to keep the poor at a disadvantage, couched in terms about helping everyone achieve higher standards. This is not to say that I don't believe in the potential of kids living in poverty-- that truth is what keeps me doing what I do-- but I also know that to discount Maslow's Heirarchy under the cover of improving education will, in fact, do the opposite.
For the sake of argument, I'll assume you haven't heard of my friend Maslow. He's the guy who formalized the idea that until your basic needs were met, you are unable to move forward towards self-actualization. When you think about it, this isn't news to any of us: have you ever helped a colleague through their work day as they were going through a family crisis? None of us can focus when we're consumed by a divorce, a death, or any major tragedy, and kids are no different. If you don't know where you're going after school, or if your mom will be black and blue when you get home, or if you'll be moving again in 6 weeks, or if tonight is the night the cops will bust the drug house in the back yard, or if the electricity will still be on or if there will be any food on the table, very little of what policy makers have defined as "essential academic knowledge" will matter much to you. Go back to that work friend of yours who is struggling with caring for an increasingly demented parent: they can barely make a pot of coffee without needing help, never mind make decisions that affect the future of the company. Kids are no different. They know that being able to tell the difference between igneous, metamorphic, and sedamentary rocks is important, but not as important as dinner. And who are we kidding here? They are absolutely right.
The standards movement is all about educational reform. I agree that our schools need massive change, but I think we need more acceptance of our differences and less of a move towards uniformity. We need more opportunity to meet kids where they are at and help them move forward, rather than judging them by whether or not they collect the right number of checkmarks in a 13 year timespan. Because make no mistake, that is really what a performance based diploma will represent-- the ability of a student to prove competency in multiple areas from grades k-12; no leeway for homelessness, no leeway for unexpected trauma, no leeway for anything. Those of our children who come from stable upbringings will be able to do this (assuming, of course, they don't come with a learning disability, which puts them in a different category anyway) but those who do not.... well, they have to work much harder to make it.
Our students come to us these days with all sorts of experiences and realities. In my county, 61% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. More than half. Yes, more than half the students in my county don't have their basic needs met. They are homeless, hungry, and struggling emotionally to make it through a day. That definitely sounds like a recipe for success in an algebra class, doesn't it? But to label them as environmentally disadvantaged... that would be cruel! Because it's not like classmates can recognize the smell of a a peer who doesn't have access to a working shower, or the emotional breakdown of a classmate who doesn't know if their family will still be there when they get off the bus. To not address these issues head on is to insult the intelligence of our students-- they all know what's happening around them, and we're teaching them through our actions to ignore what they know to be true.
Kids come to our classrooms with all sorts backgrounds, and all sorts of hindrances to their learning. Changing 'credits' to 'standards' only changes the language-- it does not change the reality of what kids are dealing with on a daily basis. Until we really address the impact of poverty on our students, we're playing an intense shell game where kids are paying the price for society's failings. And the governor has set the stage for the kids who suffer and the adults to hold no responsibility. Embarrassing, really.
What we need for educational reform is the freedom to meet students where they are and help them move further. We need to be able to get to know our students as people and as learners, and then tailor instruction to meet their needs. Right now kindergartners are being labeled as behind on their checklist after 2 months of school. Whatever happened to Piaget? Some kids start school before they have even turned 5-- and we immediately smack them with a 'does not meet' label. Gee, I wonder why so many kids hate school?
There are academic standards that must be met by all students, and there is no doubt that our system needs reform. But we are once again making subtle changes that make it incredibly difficult for students and families in poverty to succeed-- and pretending that we are doing no such thing. Until we can find a way to support learners who come from stressful surroundings, we'll never meet our own standard of leaving no child behind.