Declare war on poverty, not teachers, experts say
By Ken Jackson
In 2000, roughly half of Florida’s 67 counties reported 20 percent of school-aged children living in poverty. In 2012, that figure rose to 61 of the 67.
Couple that with research that shows two-thirds of student achievement is a product of factors outside the classroom, and the leading one of those, by a wide margin, is economic status.
All of that served as the discussion point for a May 15 county Community Conversation in Kissimmee, where representatives from the Florida Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers said that what is needed is a war on poverty and not one on teaching standards, test scores and the curriculum.
With representatives of the Osceola County Education Association, the School District of Osceola County and the School Board in attendance along with State Rep. Ricardo Rangel, R-Kissimmee, AFT and FEA leaders showed how the performance gap among different economic classes in the U.S. is widening compared to other countries as shown by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the world’s global metric for equity and quality in education.
The event was tied to the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that made it the law to offer public education to all children, but FEA President Andy Ford said it hasn’t been as easy as the high court ruling to truly make that happen.
“That was before I was born, but we’re still talking about trying to make sure our schools are a place where kids have an equal opportunity,” he said.
Rob Weil, the AFT’s deputy director of educational issues broke down the findings of the PISA report compared to other countries, and said students in low, middle and high socioeconomic status (SES) schools in the U.S. are “literally getting a different education, and much as the difference in a whole grade,” he said.
According to global PISA statistics, students in low SES schools are receiving an education on par with the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, while those in high SES schools are on the same study level as Australia, and outperformed entire countries with less than 10 percent of people in poverty, like Finland.
“No other developed country has less equity than the U.S.,” Weil said of the spread in education returns at either end of the socio-economic scale. “No other developed nation has so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children. That’s from a report from the U.S. Department of Education. And it got buried as soon as it came out.”
On the subject of offering families in lower-performing schools vouchers to create school choice, Weil said the system creates a list of “winners and losers.”
“Choice and competition are a good way to drive a segregated school system,” he said. “In a strong school system, everybody rises up.”
At the end of the program, the attendees from their various backgrounds brainstormed ideas that could work locally to bring more equity to the Osceola school system. Among the popular topics:
Providing ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) classes available to parents; finding funding for business to students who move out of an apartment mid-year can stay in the same school for continuity; and stemming the tide of college tracks replacing vocational tracks; and combining effective teachers with parental involvement.