This was written by Brock Cohen, a teacher and student advocate in the Los Angeles Unified School District who contends that we can no longer afford to trivialize the critical role that poverty plays in a child’s learning experiences – and that true school reform begins with social justice. Brock’s students were recently featured in an NPR piece that charts some of his students’ daily struggles as they pursue their education.

By Brock Cohen

We have only climbed halfway up the mountain, and halfway isn’t good enough. We want all our children to see the view from the top, to see the world of possibilities that stretch out before them.

-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

We can’t allow another generation of kids to fall by the wayside while we take our time trying to build consensus in the interest of harmony among adults. That isn’t going to happen on my watch.

-Former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee

We want to come back year after year and continue to add resources and fund more. But at the end of the day, the money is really helpful, but frankly, a lot of this is about courage. It’s about telling the truth.

-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning.

-President Barack Obama

Beware the lure of warm and fuzzy platitudes. As an English and Humanities teacher at a high-poverty public high school in Los Angeles for the past 11 years, lofty talk by opinion-makers unleashes the skeptic in me. It’s ironic that I should despise such exemplars of oratory. As one who spends the better part of each day hard-selling the written word to struggling young readers and writers, I should be able to appreciate the expert phrase-turnings of some of our nation’s best and brightest when they talk nonsense.

Except that I’ve seen the pain and misfortune they’ve caused. I see it every day.


In reality, however, I personified a system that foisted its most undesirable, unreachable students onto teachers with the least ability to address the origins of their struggles. It was a system that shuffled high-needs kids around like so many dog-eared playing cards, without any pushback from well-connected parents. Sitting in rickety desks embedded with countless vulgarities, they were yet again faced with a newbie teacher who was convinced that the riddle of reaching reluctant learners could be solved through exposure to great literature, vibrant class discussions, and provocative questions. Cue the laugh track.

Students showed up to my class intoxicated, perpetually ill, or without basic school supplies. Campus security and police removed kids from my class to execute wand-searches; some kids were subsequently taken into custody. One constantly sleep-deprived student divulged to me that he’d been kicked out of his apartment following a squabble with his stepmother, which meant he was now living in his car. Hunkered down each night in a nearby Target parking lot, he was too afraid to fall asleep. (I later confirmed this information with the school’s dean.) At one point, my classroom felt more like a revolving door, as students paraded in and out due to expulsion or relocation.

Despite, in many cases, being less than a school year away from graduation, many of my students were not doing – or even attempting to do – even the simplest assignments. And yet some of my most apathetic kids routinely offered to straighten up my cluttered desktop or sweep my classroom. What I was gradually seeing was that many of them wanted to take pride in doing something well; maybe they’d just surmised that academic success was too far beyond their grasp. I started to wonder if at least some of their apathy was actually a white flag being waved in the face of repeated failure.

I also wondered what role their parents were playing in this tragic narrative. Prior to submitting my first mid-semester progress reports, I called home to alert the parents of my failing students. Because well more than half my kids were failing, the task consumed an entire weekend.

What I learned was that a good number of these families were barely scraping by. Many parents were cobbling together livelihoods by working multiple low-wage jobs that often took them away from home for the critical late-afternoon and evening hours during which kids rely heavily on caregivers for guidance and discipline. Others were dealing with their own personal demons wrought by drugs, alcohol, or destructive relationships. Some were simply M.I.A., and I never found out why. Because many of my students were saddled with learning disabilities — a frequent characteristic among high-poverty populations of children — I attended scores of I.E.P. meetings in which my special needs students were left to discuss their challenges, progress, and goals without a caregiver in the room. In these instances, I attempted to play the role of surrogate parent, knowing full well that I was a sad excuse for the real thing.

What had grown increasingly clear to me was that my students’ academic struggles did not simply stem from inaction, ineffective parenting, drug use, or neglect. While these elements were usually present in various forms, or to greater or lesser degrees, they weren’t the root causes of their failure; they were the effects of poverty. What I’d learned in less than a semester of teaching was that poverty wasn’t merely a temporary, though unpleasant, condition — like a hangover or the sniffles. It was a debilitating, often generational, epidemic.

While my teaching credential classes were perpetually bogged down with trivialities like journal reflections, acceptable formatting options for the three-tier lesson plan, and tales of woe that rivaled A.A. meetings, discussions or assignments that sought to unravel the poverty-learning conundrum never took place. In pursuit of other alternatives, I commenced my own research.

Study after study validated my experiences and observations from spending the past five months with disadvantaged teens. Healthy children require a nutritious diet, ample sleep, stable households, regular physical exercise, and access affordable health care. They require regular cognitive stimulation to give them the neurological foundations required for complex learning tasks. And they require affection and positive reinforcement to engender them with self-worth.

Most jolting to me was a 1995 study that remains every bit as relevant today. Published by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risely, Meaningful Differences details the magnitude of a child’s early learning environment. It concludes that low-income children are typically burdened with a 32-million word gap by age 4, as well as deficits in “complexity” and “tone,” which measure the depth and intensity of verbal exchanges.  

While I continued searching for answers, either Congress or the Bush administration could have thrown me a life preserver. They opted for an anchor. Rather than instantly improving the state of public education by proposing legislation that attacked poverty at its core, they put their bipartisan muscle behind one of the most onerous, ineffectual, and wasteful slabs of federal legislation in decades.

What was then billed as a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), No Child Left Behind made quick work of common sense, setting multiple-choice standardized tests as the touchstone by which the nation’s students, schools, and, in many cases, teachers would be evaluated. The law’s founders assured Americans that what high-poverty kids needed was not better health care, smaller class sizes, expanded access to pre-K education, or supervised instruction in using 21st-century technology. They needed to be tested more. Teacher and school accountability, tied to test scores, would rescue poor children from the brink of failure. (After all, it wasn’t cynical policymakers or a misguided electorate who were failing our nation’s public schoolchildren: The real bogeyman was “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”)

Put another way, a first-generation El Salvadoran teenager, crammed into a Van Nuys apartment while acting as the primary caregiver for three younger siblings, would ultimately be held to the same performance-level expectations on the same high-stakes tests as a girl from Palo Alto whose parents attended Dartmouth. Failure of schools to ensure this would (and has) lead to monetary sanctions, mass firings, state and private takeovers, and school closings.

And so, with the stroke of our President’s pen, the act of leveling the playing field was ostensibly underway.

But then the National Alliance for Educational Progress (NAEP) started producing stacks of data that divulged what many educators had already predicted: Testing the bejesus out of high-needs kids probably wasn’t going to make them smarter. Given to a cross-section of the nation’s public school students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade each year, NAEP test results perennially revealed that the policies of NCLB have had no discernable impact on bridging the still seismic math and literacy gaps between low-income children and their wealthier counterparts.

Rather than reversing the wayward course of NCLB, however, President Obama’s approach has proven even more ineffectual — and draconian.

In fact, Obama’s Race to the Top initiative — which posits a child’s education as a cutthroat district-versus-district death race rather than a growth process necessitating patience, insight, collaboration, and compassion – has been derided by some critics as “NCLB on steroids.” As bestselling author and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch writes, “It’s even more demoralizing for teachers and principals than NCLB,” adding, “He wants the teacher-bashing to end, but I wonder if he knows that the worst teacher-bashing started because of his and Arne Duncan’s rhetoric about firing teachers if their students got low test scores?”

Perhaps the most ironic failing of NCLB (and its subsequent mutations) has been its role in blockading a generation of high-needs children from learning experiences that are deemed by our nation’s elite as gateways to becoming a truly educated person. 

Consider, for instance, that the daughter of one of my former professors has been assigned a summer reading list that includes 1984, Great Expectations, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. The list was compiled by her soon-to-be 9th-grade English teacher at the private school she’s slated to attend this fall. Which makes me wonder what percentage of our nation’s low-income and minority public school kids are ever given a chance to explore Orwell, Dickens, and, ironically, Zora Neale Hurston.

And here the term “disadvantaged” takes on an additional meaning. Not only are high-needs students often raised in communities that are segregated by socioeconomic and racial lines; they also typically find themselves attending what Stanford Professor of Education Linda Darling-Hammond and others refer to as “apartheid schools,” where an inferior curriculum featuring the incessant drill-and-kill of test prep is the norm.

Darling-Hammond has galvanized opposition to the brigade of privateers, economists, public officials, and think-tankers who insist that poverty is not a towering roadblock to a child’s cognitive development. In a piece that rails against the government’s fusillade of sanctions aimed at so-called failing schools, she writes:  

Poverty rates make a huge difference in student achievement. Few people are aware, for example, that in 2009 U.S. schools with fewer than 10 percent of student in poverty ranked first among all nations on the Programme for International Achievement tests in reading, while those serving more than 75 percent of students in poverty scored alongside nations like Serbia, ranking about fiftieth.

Sadly, few voices as learned and potent as Darling-Hammond’s were in a position to combat the eventual runaway train of NCLB while it was still in the station. And due to my school’s widespread diversity and poverty, my students were almost instantly subject to the legislation’s litany of fiats. This was actually a mixed bag for me because I was forced to confront the reality that many of my kids’ struggles were actually being codified by the small ideas of powerful people whose lives and minds existed worlds away from my classroom. I no longer had the luxury of ignoring the machinations of education policy.

As the culture of standardized testing took root around me, I eventually joined forces with a handful of compassionate innovators scattered about campus who were as deeply troubled about the direction of public education as I. Together, we pushed to revive a Small Learning Community (SLC) whose objective had wavered over the years. We kept the collaborative's original name (Humanitas) but sharpened its mandate, which would be to help students acquire the array of cognitive skills necessary for them to excel in and, more importantly, beyond high school.

In the years since, Humanitas has become one of LAUSD’s most unheralded success stories. In our drive to elevate literacy, we’ve infused the curriculum with high-interest books, essays, timely news articles, and poems that bolster the classics. (Few teenagers roll out of bed in the morning with a visceral craving for The Republic.) Reading and writing occur across disciplines, and students are routinely challenged to articulate thematic connections (i.e. What is life?) among subjects through concise, coherent prose. Socratic seminars, role-playing, oral presentations, mock trials, and debates are also common modes of assessment. In continually challenging our students to think independently, critically, and holistically, we make every effort to teach beyond the state test’s call for proficiency in basic cognitive skills. In other words, our program is where little bubbles go to die.

But our program is no panacea. Sometimes our students fail. Which means sometimes we fail. Some kids fall victim to drugs, gangs, mental illness, abuse, or ineffably bad choices. Some lose hope. Despite exhaustive efforts to stem the tide of negative, or, in some cases, tragic outcomes, our collective efforts in Humanitas will never be enough to plug all the cracks that some of our students end up falling through.

In education, there are choices to be made that can indeed move the needle of student achievement. Developing a collaborative model, for example, can lead to improvements in the skills and study habits of disadvantaged children. But closing the so-called achievement gap between rich and poor will first require Americans to recognize a far more uncomfortable reality: The policies employed to purportedly address the struggles of low-income children have ushered in a new era of school segregation. Claiming that poverty is no excuse for student failure trivializes the damage caused by years of actions and inactions that have widened the gaps between rich and poor communities. Good schools aren’t molded through harsh sanctions, private takeovers, or even soaring rhetoric. They emerge from healthy, stable communities. That is, they emerge from a commitment to justice.


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