As a student teacher, I teach two classes, Algebra 1 and AP Statistics. There are 37 Algebra 1 students ranging from 9th graders through 12th graders, some taking it for the first time, others for the third time. Just over half the class is designated as an English Learner (EL), and there are less than 10% English only speakers; 80% of the class is Hispanic and 20% is Asian. Sadly, nearly half the class failed last marking period, and of these students, a majority failed most of their other classes. In AP Statistics, 42 students crowd into the class, most 12th graders, and a few 11th graders. Nearly the entire class is designated Fluent English Proficient (FEP), either initially or re-classified, with 5% English only; 90% of the class is Asian and 10% Hispanic. Around a third of the class received a D, or lower, in the prior marking period. Both classes struggle: to listen to instruction, to take part in class without spending considerable amounts of time off-task, to complete assignments, and to prepare for summative assessments.
While those challenges are common in many high schools, they are more burdensome for underprivileged students. All across our great nation, underserved students find themselves in a nearly inescapable bind: most lack the requisite support and guidance that is ever-present for more privileged students, so they need to work much harder to attain similar levels of achievement. Even worse, they need to contend simultaneously with managing their present day academic challenges, with minimal support and resources available to them outside of school, while contending with the perils of poverty, which includes higher rates of malnutrition, disease, injury, depression, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, gang association, truancy, expulsion, violence, and incarceration. Combined these make it almost impossible for underprivileged students to succeed and to break free from their socioeconomic plight. Faced with these daunting challenges, many simply give up hope and stop trying.
With these nearly insurmountable challenges facing low-income students, poverty reveals itself as the number one contributor to the achievement gap in this country. While its solution is unclear, its inequities are all too clear. Hence, unless, and until, we figure out a way to address poverty, and its concomitant challenges that impede student learning, we will continue to struggle as a nation to close the gap in any meaningfully way. It is my firm belief that all other in-school efforts, interventions, and improvements, whether focused on pedagogy, curricula, standards, development, accountability, or a myriad of other areas, even taken together, cannot overcome poverty’s enormity. That is not to say that the improvements do not matter, or are not needed. From a logic theory perspective, the other improvements are “a necessary but not sufficient condition” for closing the gap; combining those efforts with a nationwide program to raise our poorest citizens out of poverty, however, offers the greatest hope for academic success for all, and increases the odds that our nation will continue to thrive as an economic powerhouse for years to come.
My students represent the largest growing student population in this country. Honored to serve these students, I do my best to help them in their struggles; I just wish I could do more, faster. I also wish that those who have so much in our country would realize that their continued success, as well as our nation’s, depends upon all succeeding; that the wealth they accumulated sprung from the combined efforts of tens and hundreds of millions in our society, not just the effort of the élite.
For as we see spreading rampant across the Middle East, when a large segment of society feels as if they are not sharing in the benefits of freedom, to include a living wage with hope for their future, and that of their progeny, the balance of power shifts forcefully, leaving those at the top scrambling for safety.
Amazingly, a prominent philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer foresaw this over 100 years ago, as quoted below.
“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.” – John Dewey, 1900
I believe 111 years is plenty of time for a nation to digest this sage advice and to embrace it before it is too late.