The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Top teachers cite anti-poverty programs as No. 1 school reform necessity — survey

A rare white (albino) elephant in Thailand. (EPA/STR)

In January, the Southern Education Foundation issued a report saying that for the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students — 51 percent — come from low-income families. That statistic came from a new analysis that the foundation did — using 2013 federal data — on the percentage of public school students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch programs, which has for years been used as a rough proxy for poverty. Critics said the figure was inflated because students can qualify for reduced-price lunches if their families earn an annual income of between 135-185 percent of the federal poverty limit, and they qualify for free lunches if their family has an annual income of at or below 130 percent of the poverty line. Given that the official poverty line for a family of four is $24,250, it is clear that many families above the line are struggling mightily to pay their bills every month.

My Post colleague Lyndsey Layton wrote a story about that report that included quotes from a teacher about the condition in which her students come to school. Here’s a sample:

“When they first comes in my door in the morning, the first thing I do is an inventory of immediate needs: Did you eat? Are you clean? A big part of my job is making them feel safe,” said Sonya Romero-Smith, a veteran teacher at Lew Wallace Elementary School in Albuquerque. Fourteen of her 18 kindergartners are eligible for free lunches.
She helps them clean up with bathroom wipes and toothbrushes, and she stocks a drawer with clean socks, underwear, pants and shoes.
Romero-Smith, 40, who has been a teacher for 19 years, became a foster mother in November to two girls, sisters who attend her school. They had been homeless, their father living on the streets and their mother in jail, she said. When she brought the girls home, she was shocked by the disarray of their young lives.
“Getting rid of bedbugs, that took us a while. Night terrors, that took a little while. Hoarding food, flushing a toilet and washing hands, it took us a little while,” she said. “You spend some time with little ones like this and it’s gut wrenching. . . . These kids aren’t thinking, ‘Am I going to take a test today?’ They’re thinking, ‘Am I going to be okay?’ ”

There are many teachers across the country like Romero-Smith, who, day in and day out,work with students who come to class hungry or sick or homeless or traumatized or living in wretched conditions, and who aren’t fully able to concentrate on doing a close reading of a novel excerpt. They know that the conditions in which students live outside class are the biggest impediment to student progress.

These issues, however, have not been at the forefront of school reform efforts, which, under former president George W. Bush and now under President Obama, have concentrated on holding students, teachers and schools “accountable” for progress through the use of standardized test scores. School reform proponents say that they can’t fix poverty right away and that teachers too often use poverty as an excuse for a lack of student progress and fight reform efforts because they don’t want to be held accountable. Teachers have been shouting for years that for most of them, that simply isn’t true, but reformers have carried on anyway. Mental health issues get short shrift in school budgeting.

Yet research clearly shows the effects on student achievement by poverty-induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that children bring to school. David Berliner, regent’s professor emeritus at Arizona State University, a prominent researcher and educational psychologist who has studied the issue, cites six out-of-school factors that are common among the poor and that affect how children learn, but that reformers effectively say can be overcome without attacking them directly: (1) low birth weight and non-genetic prenatal influences; (2) inadequate medical, dental and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics.

Now, a new survey (see below) taken by Scholastic Inc. and released Wednesday shows how important top teachers view these issues. The survey was taken of the newly named 2015 Teachers of the Year, a group of 56 educators from each state, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, considered among the best in the United States.

The survey reports that teachers cited these as the three top impediments to student learning:

76 percent of teachers cited “Family stress,” 63 percent cited “Poverty,” and 52 percent cited “Learning and psychological problems.”

In a story about the survey, Layton quoted a teacher as saying:

“Those three factors in many ways are the white elephant in the living room for us in education,” said Jennifer Dorman, Maine’s 2015 Teacher of the Year who teaches special-education classes for seventh- and eighth-graders. “As teachers, we know those factors present huge barriers to our students’ success. Helping students cope with those three factors is probably the most important part of my job. But on a national level, those problems are not being recognized as the primary obstacles.”

Following is the original piece on the survey and its findings from edu@scholastic, written by Greg Worrell, president of the Scholastic Classroom & Community Group. You can find the original here and more information about the survey on Scholastic Inc.’s On Our Minds blog.

By Greg Worrell
How would teachers prioritize education funding? What aspects of their jobs give them the most satisfaction? What qualities do they believe great teachers have? Do teachers believe higher standards like the Common Core will have a positive impact on students?
As we near the end of the 2014-15 school year, Scholastic had the opportunity to survey this year’s group of State Teachers of the Year. The group of inspirational educators were invited to Washington, D.C., by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which runs the National Teacher of the Year program. A yearly tradition, this group of teachers gathers for several days every April in Washington for a series of events including a White House ceremony hosted by President Obama to honor and announce the National Teacher of the Year. This year, that award went to an incredible high school English teacher from Palo Duro High School in Amarillo, TX, named Shanna Peeples.
We knew we could learn so much from this group of teachers and that their opinions represent those of so many others across the country, so with CCSSO’s help, the teachers were emailed an online survey. Forty-six of them responded.
Some clear themes emerged: Teachers see issues like poverty, family stress and other out-of-school barriers to learning greatly affecting student academic success, and they prioritize things like anti-poverty initiatives, early learning and other community supports and services for funding.
Here are highlights of what we learned from these master teachers. (Click on the images for larger versions.)
1) If these teachers could choose where to focus education funding in order to have the highest impact on student learning, their top priorities would be: Anti-poverty initiatives, early learning, reducing barriers to learning (access to wrap-around services, healthcare, etc.), and professional development/learning.
2) When asked in an open-ended question, “What do you feel is your biggest challenge as teacher?” educators most often cited the need for more time to accomplish everything involved in the day-to-day activities of being a teacher.
3) The teachers said they get the highest job satisfaction from time spent working with students in the classroom – whether one-on-one or teaching whole group lessons. They get the least satisfaction from required paperwork, grading student work and preparing student report cards.
4) Asked what barriers to learning most affect their students’ academic success, 76 percent of teachers cited “Family stress,” 63 percent cited “Poverty,” and 52 percent cited “Learning and psychological problems.”
5) What top qualities do they feel make a good teacher?
6) Ninety-six percent (all but two of the teachers who responded) agreed that higher standards being implemented – Common Core or other high standards – will have a positive impact on student learning.