Sunday, February 15, 2015

Everyone's a Critic, but What's the Real Problem?

"My two kids" is on the front page of today's Honolulu Star-Advertiser "Insight" section.  Paul McKimmy, a faculty member at the University of Hawaii College of Education, shares his experiences as a  parent with two children in the same grade level at the same public school.  One is thriving; the other is struggling. I hope that all educational leaders and policy makers read his personal story and professional insight and discuss and rethink some of their decisions that negatively impact our educational system.

Those of us in education see first-hand the correlation between socioeconomic status and student achievement.  Societal factors have a huge impact on some of our most needy students, and expecting them to be able to focus on school when their basic needs are not met is unrealistic. We know that given time and a caring staff, schools can have a positive impact on disadvantaged students. We know that teachers can be the impetus for students to be the first in their family to break out of the cycle of poverty and attend college.  We know that school can be the one constant in a child's life, the one safe place where family problems can be forgotten for a few hours. We know that every student is different and when they begin school, they do not start at the same starting line; in fact, some students are far behind other students when they first enter kindergarten. Yet we expect them to be at the same place at the end of the year,  Think of it as a running race; can we reasonably expect someone to start half-a-lap behind and finish at the same time as others who started with a big lead? Yet that seems to be what the public expects of schools.

I began my teaching career in a program for low-income preschoolers, Head Start,, and I firmly believe that providing resources to change the lives of families in poverty can pay big dividends. Head Start is not just a preschool; it provides access to health and social services to families to enhance their lives and give them hope for the future. Head Start encourages family involvement and volunteering in the classroom to help parents learn effective ways to help their children at home. Many students transition successfully from preschool programs for the disadvantaged to kindergarten. Studies also indicate that there are positive long-term benefits for children who attended Head Start.

Yet, we are unwilling to commit funds to early interventions such as universal preschool or social service programs that teach parents how to parent.  Just as we all need support when we attempt to try something new, parenting is something that does not come naturally for many new parents.  Those who had no positive parenting models may not know how to nurture their children so they will be ready for school. When students start kindergarten unprepared for the expectations of school, they may demonstrate behaviors that will impact that child's academic progress.  Blaming the school or the teacher is easy but also very unfair. In most cases, teachers and schools do their best to address the needs of the students, but they struggle to close the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots.

As Mr. McKimmy concludes in his op-ed piece, "We don't have a problem with a broken system or poorly performing teachers.  We have a poverty vs. privilege problem; but we choose to attack public schools and the teaching profession as an easy target rather than addressing the real issues head-on."  It's time for us to stop blaming schools and teachers and start providing the opportunity so ALL students can be successful in their educational experience.

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