Instead of ‘fixing’ public schools, address poverty

Our public schools are not broken. They graduate thousands of capable and curious children each year, many of whom continue their studies at America’s colleges and universities, which are the envy of the world.

In other words, when students turn the key on education – when they study hard, take advantage of extra-curricular activities – the engine works; they are prepared for the road ahead.

Our schools only appear broken because of the many children who bring a wide array of often heartbreaking problems to school – problems that make it hard for them to take advantage of the opportunities available to all.

If we have any hope of fixing our schools for them, we need to shift our focus from significant but secondary issues, including teacher pay and racial equity, to the deeper issues at work.

An N&O article about public schools in Fuquay-Varina illustrated the problem. At Lincoln Heights Elementary School, where 70 percent of the students receive subsidized lunch, “37 percent are passing state reading exams. Other nearby schools – Fuquay-Varina, Herbert Akins and Willow Springs elementary schools – have reading scores of 64, 73 and 82 percent, respectively. All three have less than half the percentage of low-income students that Lincoln Heights has.”

Despite individual variation – some kids are smarter than others, just as some are better athletes or tuba players – students as a whole have the same ability. The schools enjoy similar resources. So what accounts for the difference? Lincoln’s high percentage of students for whom English is a second language plays a part. But the more significant factor is the wide array of challenges and disabilities associated with – but not necessarily caused by – poverty.

As N.C. State economist Michael Walden notes in his new book, “North Carolina Beyond the Connected Age,” a persuasive body of research shows that “family and neighborhood factors often exceed school inputs in affecting the educational outcomes of students. Lack of supportive parents and families and the presence of crime and other social disruptions can offset” the best efforts of teachers.

Another alarming new book, “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity” by Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., examines how family and social traumas can permanently impair the mind and body. Burke Harris, who runs San Francisco’s Center for Youth Wellness, highlights the growing body of medical evidence demonstrating how “adverse childhood experiences” – including divorce, substance abuse, neglect and incarceration – can alter a youngster’s biology.

Essentially, these stressful ACEs trigger the body’s natural flight or fight response, including release of the hormone cortisol. This can be helpful when confronting short term threats. But children (and adults) living with incessant disruptions, she writes, suffer “toxic stress,” which makes it hard for them to sit still and follow rules while also making people more vulnerable to a host of health problems, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

The science, she writes, is predictive. “If a patient had four or more ACEs, she was 32 times more likely to have learning or behavior problems … the life expectancy of individuals with ACE scores of six or more is 20 years shorter than it is for people with no ACEs.”

About 24 percent of North Carolina’s children 17 and younger have an ACE score of at least two, according to the 2011 National Survey of Children’s Health. No doubt many of them are being raised by parents whose ACE scores are even higher.

An honest discussion of education needs to recognize this obvious but often neglected fact – a child’s home life has more impact on their educational achievement than their schooling.

We should also admit that we don’t know how to overcome these challenges. An unspoken idea behind Pre-K – that one of its prime benefits is removing kids from their homes and placing them in a structured environment – makes sense.

But it is also expensive – about $9,100 per child per year. And the jury is still out on whether it produces long-lasting benefits. On the other hand it seems to be the best we have.

One reason we focus on “fixing” the schools, is that, as daunting as that project may be, it seems far more manageable than addressing the myriad problems more common among the poor of every race.

A better approach will probably combine ideas from the left and right – addressing both the systemic barriers to success (including high incarceration rates) and the need for personal responsibility.

But those who claim they know how to fix these problems are blowing smoke because we have been talking about these issues for years and, well, here we are.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.

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