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Schools are Not the Problem

Schools are not the problem

This topic has long been heavy on my heart.  I’ve privately preached about my frustrations with our society’s, and our bureaucracy’s views on education in America.  This morning, I read this speech from U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy Devos and it convinced me that I can, and should, do more than preach privately.

A school’s struggles are our society’s struggles.  You can’t “fix” schools without fixing the larger issues outside of schools.

This post is not meant to propose all is well in American education, or our schools are not failing our students.  In many cases, they are, and that’s not acceptable.  However, there seems to be a continued stream of school and teacher blaming without recognizing that what goes on outside of schools impacts a child’s education.  There aren’t enough conversations about what can be done BEFORE children enter kindergarten that can give children equal opportunities for education.  Blaming education is one-sided.  We cannot continue to focus only on what happens inside the walls of K-12 classrooms. Common Core will not fix the problem.  School choice will not fix the problem.  More assessments and accountability will not fix the problem.

As long as there are impoverished and under-prepared students, legislation and policies will not “fix” education.

What can?

The income achievement gap has a direct correlation with the school achievement gap.  One in every five children in the U.S. is living below the poverty line—which is the best predictor of life trajectory.

According to the Brookings Institution, fewer than half (48%) of poor children are ready to begin school at age 5.  This is in comparison to 75% of children from families with moderate and high income; a 27 percentage point gap.  School readiness falls to 42% for children who are persistently poor—not just at birth, but also at ages two, four and five years old. Children with higher levels of school readiness at age five are generally more successful in grade school, are less likely to drop out of high school, and earn more as adults, even after adjusting for differences in family background. Poverty affects school-readiness across a wide range of populations: poor whites are less school ready than moderate/higher income whites, and the same is true of blacks, Hispanics, children of married parents, children of unmarried parents, and children whose mothers have a high school degree or less. Poor children who attend preschool programs are less likely to be school ready than preschoolers from more economically advantaged backgrounds.

There are many reasons why impoverished children come to school at a disadvantage: neonatal care, single and teen parents, less cognitive stimulation from parents (e.g. reading, singing, playing games, etc.), trauma and stress, nutrition, lack of quality early childhood programs, amongst others. Our schools are not the problems in our communities; they give a view into the problems in our communities.  We can implement systems to support impoverished children and better prepare them for success before they ever reach a typical American classroom.

Early Childhood Education: Kindergarten needs to be universally mandated.  While incredibly and increasingly rare, it is possible for a 6 year old to enter first grade having never attended a school program.  It’s also possible for said student to be remarkably behind his or her peers and unable to achieve the increasingly demanding standards set out for students.  Research has proven early intervention is key, yet quality early childhood education is not commonplace, especially in areas of poverty.  Having preschools regularly available and affordable for parents is step one, but ensuring their quality is step two.  Students, having attended preschool programs such as Head Start, should be prepared for kindergarten with a basic of understanding of things like colors, shapes, counting, letter names, and writing their own names.  Preschool should be built around developmentally appropriate activities like directed and independent play, singing, listening to and talking about stories, counting, coloring, cutting, drawing, and writing. High-quality early childhood education programs for children from low-income families show benefit-cost ratios of 7:1. Preschool should be widely funded and all children should have the opportunity to participate in high-quality early childhood education.

Parent Programs: Programs for parents, especially for young, single mothers equip them with the knowledge, tools, and resources for a healthy pregnancy and beyond.  Programs like Parents as Teachers show parents the importance of reading to children, how nurturing a crying baby is important and impacts their brain development, when children need to see their doctors for regular check ups, information on child nutrition, etc. They can be the first step in identifying a problem and can help partner the parent with other early intervention services. These programs give parents the knowledge and tools they need. Parent programs need to be present alongside other high-quality health and human services in every community.

Mental Health and Disabilities: We have done a great job over the last few decades,to learn and accept student differences and disabilities.  We have a much stronger understanding of autism and ADD/ADHD, for example.  We’re still not doing enough.  We’re not adequately training and supporting teachers about the needs they’ll see in their classrooms and how to not only teach all students, but help them thrive.  We’re not adequately teaching students about their disabilities.  We, as schools and society, aren’t helping teach parents how to help a child with a mental illness or disability.  There aren’t enough programs for mental health issues for students.  Schools don’t have enough staff and support systems to meet a diverse set of needs. Schools should have enough funding to provide special education staff and social/emotional support for students that meet the needs of their students.

Support Systems: Poverty is and will continue to be a vicious cycle without a catalyst.  Children who aren’t reading proficiently by 4th grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school.  The social support systems that are currently in place (programs like free/reduced lunch, CHiPS, Medicaid) are vital for giving children from poverty support for their basic physiological needs.  These programs should not be at risk of elimination from the federal budget.  All children, regardless of background or ability, deserve to have their basic needs met.

Teachers: Until we value and respect educators as intelligent and hard-working professionals, people will choose not to enter this profession.  We are facing a teacher shortage across this country for many reasons as teachers continue to leave the profession.  Teachers are expected to do more with less and with very little training.  It’s impossible to cover everything a teacher needs to know in 4 years of college, partially because there is no one “right” way to teach a classroom of diverse students and needs..  There isn’t enough support for new teachers once they reach the classroom.  There should be systems in place to provide new teachers, and all teachers, with mentorship, guidance, and professional development.  Professional development should move beyond the yearly training on the new curriculum; it should be related to a teacher’s classroom and that teacher’s specific needs.  We often recognize that students need differentiated instruction that is targeted to individual strengths and weaknesses but provide teachers with a one size fits all approach given by strangers and classroom “experts” who don’t know that teacher or her classroom.  Bureaucratic policies like requiring teachers to submit proof of job performance are marketed as supporting teachers, but they do not assist teachers in actually doing their jobs.  Beginning teachers are barely paid a living wage, and often have to work a second job to be able to make ends meet.  This also means they don’t have the extra time they would like to spend on learning their craft and improving.  We now hand out teaching certificates to anyone with a Bachelor’s Degree on the basis that knowing the content knowledge is all that is needed. There’s more to teaching children than just content.  Teachers need to understand how to manage a classroom, how to communicate with and support parents, how to effectively teach students with special needs, how to use data to drive their instruction, and more.  We need to understand, honor, and support everything that goes into teaching children, and implement real solutions that give teachers the support and guidance they need.

The salary systems that were put into place to protect workers’ rights have been eliminated in favor of results-based systems.  Teachers who do their job well, as measured by their evaluation and students’ performance on high-stakes assessments, can expect to be compensated for a job well done.  In theory, that makes sense.  The most effective teachers would earn the most money.  In reality, that is not what happens.  The assessments used to determine effectiveness are almost always norm-referenced, meaning they are scored on a bell curve.  That is in comparison to criterion referenced assessments which grade a students performance on set standards.  By design, a percentage of students will fail the norm-referenced test.  As detailed above, students from poverty come into school at kindergarten much less likely to be ready for school.  However, typically by the spring of third grade, we start to give all students the same high-stakes assessment and then measure that student, the teacher, and school effectiveness on that assessment.  These assessments determine school letter grades which are used to publicly declare a school’s effectiveness. What does not get factored in is that students from poverty might have made the same amount of growth or more than their more affluent peers, but if they still remain in bottom percentiles they are not considered passing, even if they would have passed a criterion-referenced assessment.   These schools are often considered failures.  School choice is often promoted because no child should be taught in a “failing school”.  We demand to empower parents with the choice of where students go to school. School choice should not be used as a solution for failing schools because it does not address what caused those schools to fail in the first place.

If we want to improve the quality of teachers we need to help teachers become better.  We need to pay for quality and relevant professional development, teacher mentoring, and support systems.  We need to pay teachers for the time they spend outside their contractual hours.  We need to treat teachers like educated professionals who help shape our future.


Many things need to change in our education system.  However, teachers and support staff are not the only responsible parties when a student doesn’t succeed academically.  Reform efforts focused solely on what happens inside the walls of a classroom, with little regard for the diverse and individual needs of students, will continue to fall short of the success they set out to achieve.


Further readings on poverty in education can be found below.


Schools are not the problem



  • Tessa, you are a rock star! I’m pretty sure you hit the nail on the head with this one and are the voice for majority of teachers in high poverty areas. The education system is crying out for help and no true life preservers are being given. I can only hope I’d be lucky enough to teach alongside you one day!

    • Thank you so much, Crystal. This was probably the hardest blog post I’ve ever written and I still feel like there’s so many other things I didn’t bring up or say. I’m not sure we would ever find ourselves teaching beside each other, but if not, I’m happy we can continue to collaborate about our similar experiences.

  • This is so true! I have taught at low income/low performing schools, where students and teachers work so hard and make improvements but still are not seen as successful. We just slap band aids on the problems and need to get to the root of the issues.


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