As we prepare for the next school year, we do what we can to equip our children with the visible signs of classroom readiness – suitable clothes, a backpack, writing supplies and perhaps a cellphone or laptop. But if we reflect on the issue, we acknowledge that children need factors that are more fundamental than trendy clothes and a full backpack.
There are some critical issues that can promote or deny opportunities for our children to learn. Certainly, technology can help, but more relevant is family income, the presence of both parents, the skill of the teachers, fair assessments of student progress, and school systems that avoid political grandstanding.
The classroom learning experience for children can be enriched by technologies such as online courses (such as MOOCs), iPads, gaming or programs to bring your own device. Those technologies can empower children to explore far beyond the resources within a classroom, but in many low-income communities those technologies are either unavailable or stale dated. In other schools, the technologies may be available, but the curriculum has not been aligned with the available technologies. Most children already know or will quickly learn the tactics needed for use of the technologies. The challenge for teachers is to keep students aligned with the curriculum.
Intact families where children are supported by both mother and father make a big difference in the child’s readiness to learn. Too many households are fragmented by incarcerated parents. During 2007, one or more parents of 1.7 million minor children were in federal or state prisons. The absence of a father’s regular and supportive influence for a child can increase behavioral problems in the classroom, force a child to live through food insecurity, and leave the child with an unfair deficit in readiness to learn.
Education practitioners and observers are well aware of the detrimental influence that poverty plays in the readiness for student learning. A significant proportion of “Children who live in poverty come to kindergarten have heard only 1/16th of the words by their wealthier peers.”
A father in the home is pivotal to the future of most children: 71% of high school dropouts come from homes lacking the presence of a father; and 75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from homes lacking a father. “In 2013, the poverty rate among children in female-headed families with no spouse present was 45%.”
Schools cannot be burdened with the herculean task of repairing fractured families or of arranging for the release of fathers from incarceration, but the classroom teacher, and other students also feel the consequences of an absent parent. Perhaps some of the drag from fractured families can be alleviated by programs such as school-community partnerships.
Teachers at schools in low-income neighborhoods move to another school at rates much higher than do teachers in wealthier districts. Nationally, the turnover rate is between 8 and 11 percent, but in the District of Columbia, turnover is 20 percent, and within the most impoverished DC schools, 33 percent of teachers leave every year, mostly novice teachers.
Many who choose to teach in low-income schools seem to lack adequate preparation for the challenge. A high rate of teacher churn is bad for the children and the school system, but it is better than holding onto disheartened and unsuccessful teachers.