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Thursday, April 30, 2020

Why Johnny Cant Read, Part 2: Income Inequity

In an earlier post, here, I laid out what I believe to be the multiple reasons for reading failure in this country: income inequity, racism and segregation, brain-based reading disorders, environmental factors, and quality of instruction. Without addressing all of these issues, some societal, some child-based, and some school-based, we will never adequately address some children's failure to thrive as readers. In this post I will take on one of those issues: income inequity.

That poverty plays some role in creating vulnerable readers is incontrovertible. Four factors are consistently pointed to in the literature.
  1. Poverty impacts the health and well-being of children. Poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, sub-standard housing, pre-mature births, low birth weights are all products of poverty that impact on a child's physical and mental development.
  2. Children of poverty are exposed to far fewer words, far fewer complex sentences, and are engaged in far fewer conversation eliciting questions than middle- and upper-class children. These language differences can lead to problems learning to read, especially in classrooms where they are treated as deficits and where appropriate accommodations are not made.
  3. Poverty causes high levels of stress. Stress that is chronic and out of the child's control has an impact on brain development.
  4. Poverty limits a family's' ability to provide material resources such as high quality day-care, literacy materials, read aloud sessions, access to technology, and outside of the home cultural experiences. 
In his brilliant article in Medium, here, Paul Thomas, calls poverty a "first-mile problem." If classroom instruction is the "last mile", poverty is the first mile and must be addressed if the cycle of poverty/reading failure is to be broken. Thomas writes:

That first mile is much larger than formal schooling, and what we refuse to recognize is that measurable reading achievement is a marker for the disadvantages of poverty and inequity in both the lives and schooling of vulnerable populations of students.

Poverty may seem an intractable problem, but the truth is that the existence of poverty is a choice we have made as a society. As award winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman has said:

None of this is inevitable. Poverty rates are much lower in European countries than in the United States, mainly because of government programs to help the poor and unlucky.

There are many things that we can do immediately to improve the lives of people living in poverty. How do we do it? By supporting programs that raise the minimum wage, by improving access to high quality child care, by providing universal health care, by using and supporting public transportation, by shopping at local small businesses, and by writing to your government officials to make sure they know these are the kinds of programs you support.

Why, if these things will work, do we fail to do them? Primarily because in America we have embraced the false narrative that poverty is the fault of the people living in poverty. We have embraced the Horatio Alger myth that a people must "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." We have conveniently ignored the fact that our economic policies often cut off the bootstraps before a person can reach down to grab them. Other countries have been far more successful at combatting poverty than we, because their policies are not weighted down with this rugged individualist mentality. As recently as two weeks ago, Senator Lindsay Graham was worrying that people in desperate need of Coronavirus relief funds would use the money to avoid going to work. Blaming the poor for being poor is endemic to American mythology.

The #MeToo movement has taught us not to be so fast to blame the victim of sexual assault. We need a #MeToo movement for poverty. Why shouldn't teachers, those who care so deeply for the children. lead such a movement? As teachers we have an obligation, I believe, to be an advocate for our students. Is it too much to ask that the children who come into our classrooms are adequately fed and clothed and prepared for learning? It won't happen magically. It won't happen if we continue to blame the victim. We will have to fight for policies to make it happen.Teacher's voices can be powerful political weapons. Right now, with schools closed due to the pandemic, everyone is learning just how difficult the teacher's job is. Why not let everyone know how to make the job better and more successful?

Nor is our action on poverty limited to what we can do outside of the classroom. Awareness of the dilatory effects of poverty on learning to read must impact our instruction. If children have experienced mind altering stress at home, we need to attend to the kind of environment, safe, warm, nurturing, that we create in the classroom. We need to double down on efforts to develop relationships with these children, by sharing openly about ourselves and listening attentively as they share their lives with us.

If children have no books at home, we must send books home with them. If children have not been read to at home, we need to read to them more often at school. Not as a reward or as a way to cool down after lunch, but several times a day, so that the children can learn the language of books. If children have had limited linguistic experience, we must make sure that the classroom is full of talk and open ended questions that invite more talk. We must teach children how to talk to each other and structure play time so that they have an opportunity to talk to each other.

If children need to develop an academic vocabulary, we need to recognize that this vocabulary is developed through multiple interactions with words and we must highlight words in our read-alouds and in our conversations and call special attention to words in all of our interactions with students. We know that vocabulary learning happens best in real contexts, so we should downplay word definition exercises and emphasize lots of talk about words. Classrooms where children have the need to build oral language facility, in other words, should be full of oral language. 

We must also downplay measurements of student progress that sort kids into winners and losers at an early age. Assessments that direct instruction are important. A teacher's daily, informal assessments are critical. Standardized assessments that seek to sort, rather than inform, will only reinforce perceived deficits. Let's not think in terms of deficits, but in terms of opportunities for growth and invitations to instruction. Let's suspend the comparisons inherent in standardized tests and emphasize assessments that direct our instruction.

One of the dumbest educational ideas of the last 100 years has been doing away with recess. All children, and especially poor children, needs lots of regular exercise for the development of their brains as well as their bodies. Teachers must fight short sighted efforts to deny recess for any reasons, but especially not for more time for test preparation. It should be noted that movements to deny recess and underfund physical education have targeted schools in poorer neighborhoods. Just another way to punish the poor for being poor.

There is so much to do and so much on the plate of every teacher, but the last thing a child of poverty needs in the classroom is an impoverished, stilted, canned, standardized test driven curriculum. Give the children language. Give them literature. Give them consistency. Give them play. Give them a nurturing environment. Give them lively instruction. Give them joy in each accomplishment.

Let's see how that works.

Next up: Racism and Segregation

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