Mirrors reflect reality with remorseless accuracy. Exercise and watch what you eat? There it is in the mirror — flat belly, taut muscles, and all. Sit on your duff and gobble Twinkies? The consequences also are reflected with unflattering exactitude. Well, schools are our nation's mirror. What's right or wrong with them reflects what's right or wrong with America. In the 'good old days' 'wrong side of the tracks' kids typically dropped out of school long before graduation. So those schools provided a more flattering reflection of America. These days a lot more kids stay in school. In consequence, today's schools accurately reflect what's going on in America.
What is going on? One of the most striking developments is that the U. S. has the most uneven distribution of wealth in the world. The Aspen Foundation reports that the wealthiest 1% of American families hold some 40% of all the wealth. The bottom 90% of share less than 25%. This disparity profoundly impacts the lives of millions of children. Teachers wrestle with the consequences every day.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that 18% of all children in America, a total of nearly 13 million (1 in 5) live in poverty. They all go to school. Plus more of our citizens per thousand are imprisoned than any where else on the globe. This means hundreds of thousands of dads are locked up. So were 57,700 mothers. In fact in 2021 some 626,800 fathers of minor children were incarcerated. And the Casey Foundation reports that more than 5 million American children, 1 in 14, has had a parent imprisoned at some point in their lives.
The destructive effects of massive inequality and mass incarceration flood into classrooms with devastating effect. And this is especially true in the poorest school districts, where teachers have inadequate resources while the children have major problems.
Meanwhile in more affluent areas with financially secure, well-educated parents, plus functional families, safe streets, a rich tax base and a general respect for learning, good school outcomes are much, much more likely. And teachers here are better paid and have far more resources. It's a case of "them that has, gets,"
Let's also briefly consider how the quality of parenting fits in here. Is quality parenting reflected in school outcomes? "Is the Pope Catholic?" The requirements for becoming a parent are distressingly lax. So a host of people gain parental responsibility who simply can't or won't meet the mark. Far too many are too stupid, selfish, cruel, frightened, impoverished, mentally ill, emotionally needy, foolish, addicted, ignorant, etc., to responsibly raise a child. And our schools reflect this melancholy reality every hour of the day.
I know a first grade teacher who for 13 years was very successful, winning many plaudits. Then she was hired to teach kindergarten in the School District of Philadelphia. She quit before the year was up to preserve her mental and physical health. Her comment upon quitting was, "I don't know what I was supposed to be doing in there, but it sure wasn't teaching. Then she added, "And I'm tired out caring more for other people's children than their parents do." Hyperbolic and spoken in disgust? Sure. But there's still is a strong element of truth.
Of course politicians, many bought-and-paid-for via campaign "contributions," find it expedient to interpret the situation differently. They maintain, some of them might actually believe, that poor school outcomes are the fault of educators. Sometimes they are. But most of the time they aren't.
Let's reprise. Our schools mirror the nation. So if you are disturbed by what you see reflected, it is unlikely to be the mirror's fault. And if you like what you see, don't give the mirror much credit either.
Does that mean educators are essentially powerless and can do little or nothing to improve learning? Of course not. But what they can do is limited when poverty, crime, lousy parenting, social disorder, dysfunctional families, etc., create an avalanche of problems, indifference, even opposition. Of course, when the opposite prevails what they can do is vastly enhanced.
Perhaps you can remember when, in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama era, school reform was all the rage and the federal government spent billions of dollars, and a lot of hot air, on various schooling improvements. Now we know that those initiatives were largely worthless. In retrospect it seems as if these politicians were buying new mirrors because they weren't satisfied with what the existing mirror reflected. Were they aware that's what they were doing? Who knows? But we do know that appearance matters more than reality when you're playing politics. And we also know that Barrack Obama could not have been serious when he officially ruled that folks only training to be teachers were already "highly qualified" to be one. ("Highly qualified" was a standard that the federal law required.)
If any so-called 'public servant' should really wants to improve school outcomes, here's three things they must do:
1. reverse the growing disparity between the rich and the rest of us
2. quit locking up so many parents without regard for what that does to their kids
3. offer free, high quality, parent training (plus follow-up support) to anyone who wants it.
Positive results will take far longer than a typical term in public office, a great deal of money, and more rigorously selected, much better trained, and better paid teachers. Do that and school results will gradually improve. But it seems there's virtually no chance of that happening.
For more on this see www.newfoundations.com/Clabaugh/CuttingEdge/PSMirror.htm