Saturday, September 1, 2012

Reformers Just Don't Know....

In the endless back and forth in education debates, a favorite line echoed by Teach for America, the Gates Foundation, KIPP, and all the powerful ed reformers out there is "Poverty is Not Destiny."  The idea is that schools don't have to wait for poverty to be fixed outside school, but rather schools can help fix poverty through great education.  And that great education is provided primarily by "great" teachers.  It is interesting that these ed reform proponents, while talking up how important in-school factors are since "that is something we can change NOW" (urgency! they are full of righteous anger-fueled urgency), almost never bring up the issue of inequity and gross underfunding in the schools suffering the worst effects of poverty.  But that is the spiel they have chosen.

People like me, on the other hand, say that schools absolutely should be improved, but that that improvement rests largely on providing more resources and opportunity, not on firing the "bad" teachers and hiring only the "effective" teachers.  But, even if we decided tomorrow to flip the funding formulas between affluent and low-income schools, or if state legislators suddenly got serious about "failing schools" and decided to double, triple, even quadruple the funding, just improving what happens inside schools will never be enough.

I am beginning to realize that many ed reformers may have never seen the worst effects of poverty on kids.  Many of the folks coming through TFA are being placed in charters, people who work at KIPP only see the least-damaged students, and the politicians and non-profit workers have, for the most part, never done more than a photo op with children from low-income backgrounds, usually at a charter school.  And as someone who has worked closely with the kids from the charters, I know those kids are much better off than many other children. 

Most ed reformers have never seen what I see everyday.

As anyone who has ever read my blog knows, I work as a teacher on an inpatient psychiatric unit for children and adolescents in Chicago.  I work with kids who are so sick, that they had to be hospitalized in order to keep them and those around them safe.  On our unit, children and adolescents may not even have pencils unsupervised or paper clips for fear of harm.

And through my job I have seen, real and personal, the effects that poverty can have on our young people.  I have seen children, with a history of abuse, placed in the foster care system, who are so sad that they bang their heads against walls, scratch their faces, and scream "I want to die."  I have seen children who get so angry-who have so little frustration tolerance due to living in unpredictable situations where they had to be in a constant "fight or flight" state to keep themselves safe on the streets-who will beat another child just for looking at them the wrong way.  I have seen countless children who were exposed to substances in utero and now their brains do not work the same as their typically developing peers.  These children get angry, throw chairs, scream in frustration when their needs are not met, and lash out to hurt anyone around them.  I have seen these same children struggle to learn even basic letters and counting, thanks to the cognitive impairments they have. I have seen children who were homeless for most of their life, whose brains were forever damaged by the stress of their early childhood experience, who now require one to one assistance just to be able to function with a group of children.  I have seen young girls, so severely depressed about growing up in our lawless inner-cities with parents overcome with drug addiction and gang affiliations, grab a bottle of cleaning fluid and try to kill themselves.  I have seen child after child exposed to greater trauma on the streets of Chicago, than our soldiers in Kabul face!  I have spoken with countless children who feel hopeless, who feel abandoned, whose lives are forever altered due to the rampant poverty we let them be exposed to.

Now there are things we can do to help these kids.  And believe me, people like me are doing our best every day to help repair the damage done to these fragile children.  The proper interventions are expensive, time-consuming, and will not work for every child.  But those of us in the mental health field do what we can with the few resources we are given.

But I ask you, why do we as a society LET these beautiful children become so damaged in the first place?  It is as if we are sitting back and letting a child be beaten again and again by an abusive parent, and then looking the other way.  The education reformers out there are saying "sorry you got beat, here are some chants and gimmicks that will help you catch up academically".  We tell the kids to "work hard, be nice" as if that were enough.  And if some kids can't just "get over" the massive abuse done to them, then they clearly are at fault and don't deserve quality education.  God forbid kids, after being exposed to all types of trauma and then coming to an understanding of the savage inequalities of their lives, don't want to just "be nice". 

As poverty in this country deepens, we are seeing more and more kids with even more debilitating disabilities.  Insurance agencies are shortening the amount of time these kids are allowed to heal in hospitals like mine.  Add to that cuts in mental health services, child and protective services, and the schools that serve these children, and these kids are being doubly abused. 

For too many of these children, if their families had not been battling the weight of deep poverty, they would not be sick.  Let me say that again, if these kids had not been born into extreme poverty, they would not be screaming, gouging their skin, threatening harm, crying every night, and put into a hospital.  It is unconscionable to allow these children to continue to be put in harm's way.  Every penny we have should be thrown into prevention, not just in helping after the abuse has already happened.

Ed reformers, go and get educated.  You clearly do not know the realities of what growing up in poverty can do to a child.  It is a reality that every public school teacher of low-income students knows and experiences daily.  It is why we fight, tooth and nail, your disgusting insistence that "poverty is not destiny".  That excuse has been used for far too long to allow us to ignore the growing mental health crisis affecting all aspects of children's lives including school.  If you did know the realities, and still continued to chant "poverty is not destiny", then you are complicit in nothing short of child abuse.

Well ed reformers, you have been told about the real effects of poverty.  Now what are you going to do about it?


  1. With all due respect, Katie, I couldn't disagree more.

    Have you looked at what programs such as "El Sistema" are doing for at-risk youth? I have launched one successfully, and it is saving these children's lives. The worst thing about poverty, as El Sistema Founder Jose Antonio Abreu said, "is not the lack of bread or water, but the lack of hope."

    I HAVE seen the real effects of poverty, so I take offense to your remark aimed squarely at ed reformers. These kids CAN be reached, and while the responsibility should NOT rest squarely on the backs of our educators, I can attest to the fact that they are not keeping their end of the bargain. Social and emotional skills CAN be taught, through enrichment programs, through digital learning, and through other avenues, which continue to be ignored and/or poorly implemented by schools.

    So stop blaming poverty and take a good look in the mirror. Good teachers can motivate these kids - I have seen this happen in my own "El Sistema" program.

    1. Please re-read what I wrote regarding doing all we can to help these kids. I am one of the people who has dedicated their lives to working with children suffering from the worst effects of poverty, many of whom have developed really tough behaviors. My job is really really difficult. But frankly, while not perfect by any means, I do a really great job. I reach kids that no one else can. I motivate kids that others have given up on.

      But the cruelty is that many of these kids illnesses- their suffering and their pain-COULD HAVE BEEN PREVENTED! We live in the wealthiest nation on earth. We could have offered hope long before it got to this point. And unfortuantely, some kids will have permanent brain damage from their exposure to stress, trauma, and lethal substances while they were young. Research is really clear about the negative effects on brain development from growing up in extreme poverty.

      That we let kids grow up in such conditions is absolutely unforgivable. Can't we as a society make a commitment to at least protect our children??

  2. Hi Katie,

    I totally agree with you. Teachers potentially striking over unfair practices that ask them to continually do more with less are vilified because they are not "putting the kids first." But the real problem is that SOCIETY does not put kids first--by not properly funding education, early childhood services, anti-poverty efforts, mental health services, etc. Apparently teachers are the only ones required to put kids first--and many do, every day, at a great personal cost that is completely unsustainable.

    Unfortunately, I don't have any great ideas about how to make people realize that the problem lies with all of us, our budgetary priorities, and our elected officials. Do you?

    Thank you for the difficult work you do every day!

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  4. Katie,

    Thank you for speaking the truth about the connection between poverty and academic achievement and the utter failure of the "education reformers" to recognize this issue or show any ability to deal with it. Here in Connecticut, home to the "largest achievement gap" in the nation, the reformers fail to admit that since poverty, language barriers and special education needs are the three biggest predictors of scores on standardized tests, Connecticut, with the largest wealth gap in the nation can't help but have the largest achievement gap in the nation. To make matters worse, the charters schools in Connecticut, all of whom are located in urban areas, cream off the students who are less poor, have few to none speaking a language other than English and refuse to take their fair share of students who need special education services. The charters claim better test scores, which one would expect when they pull a particular cohort of students, and then the charters decry the poor showing of the students left in the district schools, schools whose students are now made up of the poorer students with more language barriers and significantly higher number that are disabled and need special education services.

    If you send me an email, I'll send you some reports that further show how you are absolutely right and the person commenting above is absolutely wrong. My blog is Wait, What? which is located at

  5. Reading through comments, postings, articles, etc. I have noticed that a very large amount of religious people come from difficult backgrounds. Addiction, Poverty, Abuse, Jail, War, etc. Not always the individuals themselves, but their family or ancestors have usually been through lots of adversity. With the Internet and open minds it also appears that more people are becoming smarter. Researching things and finding out answers instead of accepting whatever older people have told them.

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