To start off the new year, here’s a personal look at the problems that face public education  from Brock Cohen, a teacher and student advocate in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Cohen believes that school reform begins with social justice and that school reformers everywhere have to stop trivializing the role that poverty plays in student achievement. His students were featured in this NPR piece.

By Brock Cohen

I stared into the now unlocked and vacant steel filing cabinet drawer that formerly contained three valuable tools of my trade as a high school English-Hanguage Arts and Humanities teacher: an LCD projector, an Elmo projector, and a Macbook Pro – all resources that I had fully incorporated into my daily instruction. Now they were gone. My classroom had been robbed.

After reporting the incident, I was informed that the perpetrator likely acquired a duplicate key; entered through my rain-warped, ill-fitting bungalow door; and simply unlocked the console. No matter that I was obsessive about securing my belongings each night: What I foolishly assumed was an impregnable hunk of steel in the corner of my class was, in reality, a delicate turn of the wrist away from its contents becoming Craig’s List fodder.

The lost resources, while inconvenient, aren’t my biggest concern. Every day, teachers in underfunded schools make due with inadequate materials. Moreover, I can always write another grant in hopes of replacing at least one of the pieces – a tactic I had used to acquire both the MacBook and Elmo in the first place.

What really troubles me is that the key is still out there, and it’s in the wrong hands. It’s unsettling when I consider the multitude of items to which this individual might gain access (and, on a broader scale, the kinds of horrors that could come about if the NRA and its power brokers are successful in their campaign to arm school staff and faculty with firearms that can be stolen as easily as a MacBook).

I begin with this anecdote not to garner sympathy or to show how naïve I was, but to underscore something that occurred to me as stared down into that empty cabinet drawer – and that has gnawed at my conscience ever since. Sometimes, we take for granted the enormous power of keys.

Moments before discovering that my room had been robbed, I had ambled into my bungalow an hour earlier than normal, sleep-deprived and yet rejuvenated. With my first semester as a doctoral student finally behind me, I was buoyed by the thought of being able to fully immerse myself in teaching again. It wasn’t so much that I had been consciously holding back, but the four-hour nights of sleep had piled up. As a result, there were too many moments when I simply could not be the teacher I wanted to be.

This information will likely come as a surprise to many of my current students (if they end up reading this). The truth is, even on half a tank, I’m still a ball of unbridled energy. I attribute this to one of the many paradoxes of teaching: Working with so many teenagers each day is, on the one hand, physically and emotionally taxing; at the same time, being around young people has always fueled me with a sense of urgency that serves as a catalyst for my high-energy teaching style. This is not to imply that I’m some paragon of righteousness: I challenge any rational adult with half a conscience to share a classroom filled with 40-some-odd teenage faces and not feel a sense of moral obligation.

Even back when I was an overmatched, self-doubting first-year teacher (and there are still those moments when I feel like that same fumbling neophyte), I was no less inspired by the reality that my students were relying on my colleagues and me to somehow fill the gaps punctured by an array of adverse social, institutional, and environmental factors that were, in reality, beyond our control. It’s completely irrational to believe that a collection of even the most gifted educators can expunge years of domestic strife and ill-fated legislation. And yet, we never lacked for trying. (My sense is that most teachers would probably agree that this on-the-job denial of harsh external realities is an occupational prerequisite.)

I was also quick to learn that leading with the heart can sometimes compensate for limitations in one’s pedagogical expertise. Not that this will come as a staggering revelation, but it bears repeating that students are far more open to learning when they feel as though the keys to their well-being have been conferred to someone who they deem as sincere and trustworthy.

Still, the process takes time, and not everyone buys in. Because they are burdened by what education scholar David C. Berliner refers to as “out-of-school factors” that “unquestionably affect achievement,” (and that occasionally rattle my faith in humanity), some students suffer severe deficits in what, for social cognitive theorists, is the troika of motivation: self-efficacy, self-regulation, and goal-orientation. Without these components, successful learning outcomes are extremely difficult for anyone to achieve.

Absent a catalyst to elevate their value of the task at hand, these students remove themselves emotionally and intellectually from their learning environment in an ongoing attempt to run out the clock until they’re no longer obligated to legally attend school each day. By doing so, they refuse to give either of us a fighting chance and instead continue down a path that leads them further away from stability. In what at first manifests itself as apathy cycles into ineptitude: even if they eventually decide to make academics relevant to their lives, their weeks, months, or years of disconnection have already set them far below grade level.

These are the slip-through-the-cracks kids that have yet to be saved by a decade of high-stakes assessments and lofty platitudes. Their wayward momentum is simply guiding them down the path that has long-since been carved out by generational poverty and the clown car of charlatans that refuse to acknowledge it as the primary antecedent to academic deficiencies. These are the kids who have seldom (if ever) read an entire book, have likely never been read to, and who often return to households that are light on reading materials or stable adult guidance but infused with the perpetual din of raised voices, junk TV babble, and even spasms of violence.

To illustrate this point, I give you the case of one of the novels I assigned to my ninth-graders this past semester, The Catcher in the Rye. Because many of my students are reluctant readers (or are reading well below grade level), I attempt to scaffold their literary experience with an assortment of multi-sensory activities. This process includes class discussions that touch upon the story’s themes and issues; dramatic readings by myself; staged re-enactments performed by small groups of students; and writing tasks that keep them mindful of essential story elements. All the while, I keep things lively and facilitate movement whenever possible.

By the time we reached the book’s midpoint, most of my students were reading autonomously and analytically. This was no small feat. Because my students are immersed in a culture of academic mediocrity that has been foisted upon them from all angles, there is considerable social risk in coming to class each day with something to say about why Holden Caulfield is so terrified of change, or why red is such a predominant motif. Many of them did, and I’m proud of them for it.

Despite the gratification of witnessing so many of my students evolve into active, avid readers, I was nonetheless brought back down to earth by the sobering social realities with which they must contend each day.

Right before holiday recess, for instance, one student flagged me down in the quad, his copy of Catcher in hand, and begged me to let him keep the book over break so that he had something to read when he was bored. When I asked if he’d already completed the book, he responded that he had, but that the only reading materials in his home were car magazines.

In contrast, several weeks earlier, another student refused to check out the novel altogether, attributing her snub to a hatred of reading. As an alternative to Catcher, I presented her with a young adult reading list, which included popular titles like Speak and Cirque Du Freak, along with a brief description for each. She nodded politely, then, at the end of class, discretely deposited the list in the trash. To my knowledge, she hasn’t read a word of text since entering my class last August. Even more disconcerting was her chilling rationale for why reading is unnecessary: “Mister, no offense, but reading’s for white people.”

And yet another student verbalized what has become a common refrain throughout my years of teaching. Her decision to stop reading Catcher had little to do with the story itself but was instead a product of her inability to sustain focus for more than a few sentences at a time (a common symptom of an overstressed short-term memory). Despite conveying to her some of the reading strategies that I’ve used to assuage my own ADHD, she countered that her home was too noisy for reading. She never made it through the first chapter.

While these situations are obviously not restricted to low-income households, the triadic correlation among poverty, repeated environmental stress, and learning struggles is irrefutable. It is a reality reflected in reams of peer-reviewed empirical studies and in the words of expert practitioners like Dr. Vincent J. Felitti, the director of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study at Kaiser Permanente, who cautions, “What happens in childhood, like a child’s footprint in wet cement, leaves its mark forever.” It is also a reality that classroom teachers struggle to address every day.

These students are the children left behind by No Child Left Behind and other failed social experiments that purport to elevate the kids of disadvantaged families. In actuality, such legislative sleights of hand saddle low-income and high-needs kids with the inferior learning experiences that are largely constituted around feeding the beast of for-profit testing and textbook companies, rather than in creating lifelong learners, innovators, and leaders.

If bridging the achievement gap truly mattered to our nation’s policy makers, why would they continually ignore research that details the ways in which children learn, why would they insist on turning poor kids into bubble-filling automatons, and why would I only have one balky PC in a classroom brimming with 47 high school students?

Giving voice to a growing dissatisfaction with the once-vaunted school reform movement spearheaded by Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, and a host of others, Louis Menand of The New Yorker writes, “The educational system is supposed to be an engine of opportunity and social readjustment, but in some ways it operates as a perpetuator of the status quo.”

Which is further evidence that we’ve let the keys fall into the wrong hands.