The mornings where I limit myself to three cups of coffee and skip out on breakfast are the mornings where I pounce into the shower with the vivacity of a thousand bouncy balls. Two hours later, during a mid-morning meeting or while seated in my office, I find myself slumped over, pouring out of my chair unable to say anything beyond one syllable words. The fact of the matter is that when I don’t eat breakfast, I am the least pleasant person to be around unless you imagine working alongside a woman with the demeanor of a toddler.
Now imagine a child, eight years old, under the same circumstances. But instead of skipping out on breakfast because she is too busy, she misses breakfast and dinner because her parents are unavailable or unable to provide that meal. I am not giving you a lesson on the aspects of poverty in this country because you are unaware but because poverty is something that we are reluctant to discuss. It’s not a sexy topic and people think of it as something that happens in a town in another continent as opposed to right in their own backyards. Or, for me, it was 150 miles away when I was first introduced to the writings of Jonathon Kozol who described the children of the South Bronx in such exquisite, heart-wrenching detail that it was hard then and even now, to resist the urge to jump up and do something. But what? That’s the question that has remained.
It was with a sense of urgency in wanting to see equity among various populations of children that led Congress to pass No Child Left Behind. Deadlines were placed, achievement gaps would be closed and with one bill we would see vast improvement in the education of this country. A decade later and here we are, still standing in square one waiting for Adequate Yearly Progress to be made and to see our children learning without getting to the root of what is preventing true parity between school districts.
Poverty is chief among the problems; that there are children who are unable to learn because they are hungry or because the neighborhood they live in is a dangerous one or their parents are unable to help with their school work due to their own lack of schooling. These are the factors of whether or not a child will succeed so when we discuss education, we need to talk about the whole child; the child who attempts to learn while in pain or unable to see the blackboard because he or she has never been to see a doctor. Again, this isn’t about pity but about the reality of schooling and how children learn. Yet who is there to blame for the discrepancies between a child downstate v. a child living in suburban Long Island? The federal government cannot write legislation to improve parenting or to eradicate poverty but what they can do is author a bill to blame the teachers. And that is where we are now.
Last week I attended a rally to restore over two billion dollars in funding cuts to the New York State budget. The week before that I sat and listened to a high school senior give her all to profess the detrimental effects that education cuts have on her schooling. Then I sat in meeting where the narrative continues to be that though teachers did not cause this economic crisis, someone needs to be the villain and they - those who are educating your children - have been chosen for that role. And then I read legislative language where the amount a school district receives in funding will be proportionate to how well a teacher does on their evaluation. Meanwhile teachers are continually feeling demoralized and telling their own children not to go into the profession because they deserve to have a career where they are not devalued and disrespected.
So much of the problem is clear: Children aren’t able to learn because no one wants to focus on the whole child. Teachers are being degraded and treated as if what they do doesn’t matter. Putting money into a problem without true reform and thought won’t help nor will competition between districts and states which will only put more of a wedge between the haves and the have-nots. Yet here I sit, writing this with C-SPAN debating a budget that makes draconian cuts to education, plays in the background. The ones who are the most vulnerable and require real, bipartisan reform remain last. There’s a lot of talk about what to do in education, there has been for years, but when it comes down to it, the lack of action speaks louder than words. This is our present and our future will hurt, too.