By John Tarka
My father dropped out of school in the eighth grade and went to work as a laborer in the mills of Western Pennsylvania to help support his family. Later, he mastered the craft of cutting meat and became a butcher. He was a smart man and a hard worker who provided for us the best he could. I sometimes wonder about the kind of career he could have pursued had he had the chance to finish school and go to college.
Research makes clear the vital link between education and economic opportunity. We know that graduating from high school prepared for college or a skilled trade is the difference between a lifetime of poverty and a life-time of economic security. However, fewer than 70 percent of America’s students graduate from high school on time with the skills they need for college, work, and life. For African-American, Latino, and low-income students, that percentage is about 50 percent. And those mills my father worked in closed down long ago.
Too often, the discussion around poverty and education is framed as “making excuses.” I think of it as confronting reality. Teachers believe that all children who walk through their classroom doors can learn. But those of us on the front lines know that some children need extra supports to over-come the barriers they face.
The federal education law, No Child Left Behind, succeeded in shining a light on the test-score gaps among different groups of students. But the law all but ignored the causes of those gaps and failed to deliver the resources needed to close them. New research by Stanford University sociologist Sean F. Reardon found that the achievement gap between poor children and rich children has grown significantly over the past three decades. It is now twice the size of the achievement gap between white and African-American students. Reardon and others conclude that widening gaps in economic and social resources between rich and poor children are eroding the ability of public schools to overcome those disadvantages.
This is a troubling development. Public education has long been the beginning of the path leading to the American Dream. For poor and immigrant families in particular, school has been the next generation’s ticket to a better life. In America today, one of five children live in poverty. For them, public education is an economic lifeline.
But public education is under attack. Some politicians in Florida and throughout the nation have reacted to budget problems by giving huge tax breaks to corporations and our wealthiest citizens. These tax breaks result in less support for public education and desperately needed social service programs. To make matters worse, some politicians have funneled dwindling public resources to private school vouchers and for-profit education companies. Meanwhile, in the United States we have lost nearly 300,000 education jobs since 2008. While our safety net of social services frays and poverty soars, school nurses, guidance counselors, and psychologists are, un-fortunately, the first to be laid off.
We can and must do better. We must adequately fund public education to ensure that educators have the tools they need to reach students with the greatest challenges, whether it is smaller class sizes or expanded summer school. We must also recognize that schools alone cannot obliterate the crippling effects of poverty and that our students need quality health care, adequate housing, and good nutrition to succeed. A child suffering with a chronic toothache, or who is worried about her family losing their home, will struggle to do well in school.
The American Federation of Teachers and its affiliates have initiated several projects designed to try to address all the needs of our students. In McDowell County, West Virginia, the AFT and Gov. Earl Tomblin are leading a public-private partnership of more than 40 partners to enhance educational opportunity for the children of Central Appalachia, while addressing the underlying problems caused by chronic poverty and economic decline. In Cincinnati, the district and the union have worked together on an innovative community schools program that provides students and their families a host of wraparound services ranging from health care and counseling to after-school programs. In Pittsburgh, where I was a teacher and union leader for 43 years, our union, the district and the community collaborated to establish the Pittsburgh Promise, a scholarship fund that gives all public school students in the city a chance to go to college.
These types of programs are worthy of emulation. They recognize that schools can’t do it alone and that we all share responsibility for our children’s success.
Tough economic times derailed my father’s dreams, but public schools gave my own family the opportunity to learn professions that have ensured us relative comfort and security. We owe our next generation of students nothing less.
(John Tarka is administrator of the Broward Teachers Union)
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