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Akst: Poverty is the school problem, not the solution

"Schools can't just wait for someone to eliminate

"Schools can't just wait for someone to eliminate poverty first," writes Daniel Akst. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

A couple of weeks ago, I argued in this space that the real problem with our schools isn't poor teachers or inadequate funding. The real problem, I said, was poverty.

The U.S. has a much higher proportion of kids -- around 23 percent -- living in poverty than do comparable nations, and if you take the poor out of the equation, our schools stack up pretty well.

Ever since, I've been hearing from grateful teachers (and many others) who saw the column as an overdue affirmation of what they've been saying all along. "Thank you for speaking the truth," said one high school instructor. While I'm delighted with the response, I need to say something here that I haven't said in responding to teacher emails, which is: Not so fast.

That poverty is a problem in America's schools seems clear. But it's equally clear that this problem isn't going away any time soon; even a bevy of effective anti-poverty programs, launched today, wouldn't pay dividends for years. Meanwhile, we can't just write off a generation of poor children. So America's schools are going to have to figure out a way to do a better job educating kids from low-income backgrounds.

This won't be easy. These children come from homes where books are scarce and vocabularies less than expansive. So we've got to find a way to get the best teachers into the worst schools, perhaps by paying them more -- but "best" can't just mean "most experienced," because those aren't always synonyms.

And that brings us to the teachers unions -- which are going to have to change. Instead of exerting their great political influence to oppose reforms and protect inadequate teachers, they should redirect their clout toward addressing poverty through better health care, job training and other interventions for low-income Americans. Instead of pouring energy into stymieing teacher evaluations and charter schools, enlightened unions should put themselves at the forefront of accountability and educational change.

And while I am filled with admiration for the teaching profession, I confess that it's dispiriting to read some of the things that teachers write. I get these missives not just in my capacity as a journalist, but also as a parent, and the writing can be painful. Rarely better than pedestrian, teacher prose is all too often studded with errors of grammar, punctuation and spelling. As a result of one particular howler from our local school, we have a standing joke at our house about dressing to ward off "tics" when we go outdoors. The precautions have been effective; although I once suffered a nasty bout of ehrlichiosis after a walk in the woods, I have yet to contract any spasmodic facial disorders.

Speaking of writing, how about asking the students to do a lot more of it? I can't think of a better way to inculcate critical thinking or instill vital communication skills. And isn't there some way to assign kids more interesting and challenging books to read? Surely it's time to abandon what looks suspiciously like an official campaign to turn students off to reading.

One thoughtful reader asked what could be done about poverty. It has many causes, after all, including the bad choices poor people sometimes make. Another reader recalled growing up in the Depression as one of five kids in a struggling farm family. He and every one of his 23 high school classmates, he reported, "went on to become productive citizens" as pilots, engineers and, yes, teachers. Maybe it had something to do with that family he mentioned, and others like it.

I don't have good answers, but I know that better education has to be part of any plan to help low-income kids. The schools can't just wait for someone to eliminate poverty first.

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