Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fix the teacher? What about society

One of the five items in the BC education plan is to improve "teacher quality". Evidently Minister Abbott, after his many visits to schools and conversations with teachers, has come to the conclusion that there is a "teacher quality" problem. This despite overwhelming evidence of the negative impact on educational outcomes from external factors, such as socio-economic status (see, for example, this fact sheet from the American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/factsheet-education.aspx).

Noticeably, the government appears to be ignoring these "out of school" factors on student learning. There was no response to the recent announcement that BC's child poverty levels increased last year to over 16%. The annual report card on Child Poverty produced by First Call Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition also found:
  • In 2009, nearly half of the poor children in B.C. lived in families with at least one adult working full-time throughout the year.
  • The poverty rate for children of lone-parent mothers fell to a record low 24.2 per cent. The poverty rate for children in two-parent families rose to 15 per cent.
  • Low-income two-parent families had incomes on average of $14,200 below the poverty line.
  • The poorest 50 per cent of families with children in B.C. had less than one-quarter of all the personal income of families with children.
  • An estimated investment of about $900 million is required to bring the incomes of low-income families with children in B.C. up to the poverty line.
  • The poverty gap — or the difference between the incomes of all poor people in BC and the poverty line — was $3.872 billion in 2009.
(see: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2011/11/23/bc-child-poverty.html)

There is nothing in the "bcedplan" that addresses child poverty. The assumption appears to be that no matter what the student population and the issues that impact student learning, just fixing the teacher will be a magic bullet to overcome every other aspect of a child's life that impedes their ability to learn. No teacher can overcome the myriad of issues that poverty brings to the child learner, which include:
  • inadequate nutrition
  • stress and anxiety
  • poor health
  • lack of role models
  • no home support for school work, study habits
  • safety issues
  • lack of cognitive stimulation/experiences
In the US, where child poverty is above 20%, the "fix the teacher" mentality has been widely implemented, with the associated policies of merit pay, elimination of job protection rights, and teacher evaluation based on student test scores. Yet US students are doing no better. These policies seek to divert policymakers and politicians from addressing societal issues and provide an easy scapegoat for poor educational outcomes.

An American Superintendent from Texas, John Kuhn, recently addressed this failure of US policy in an article in the Washington Post, and called on the same level of "accountability" for addressing social issues as teachers face for educational outcomes:

"Today some 22 percent of American children live in poverty. Are we going to pretend forever that it is acceptable to ignore the needs of children outside the schoolhouse and blame teachers and principals for everything that happens inside?

As soon as the data shows that the average black student has the same opportunity to live and learn and hope and dream in America as the average white student, and as soon as the data shows that the average poor kid drinks water just as clean and breathes air just as pure as the average rich kid, then educators like me will no longer cry foul when this society sends us children and says: Get them all over the same hurdle.

And so I as an educator now say to a nation exactly what it has said to me for years: No excuses! Just get results. " (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/a-superintendent-calls-school-reformers-bluff/2011/12/11/gIQABKBXoO_blog.html?tid=sm_btn_tw)

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