The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin


on September 17, 2019

Although I wrote this several years ago, I think now is a good time to post it again. As we begin a new school year we should remind ourselves of the invisible problems that many children bring to school.


I have never doubted the truth of the school reformers’ slogan, “All children can learn.” But that slogan doesn’t tell us whether children will learn what their schools think is important or concentrate on how to get a new smart phone and be popular in their neighborhood. What makes the difference for children living in poverty?  Maybe it’s the large number of potholes and roadblocks they meet on their way to getting an education. Or it may be the meager amount of support given to overcome them.

To understand the nature of potholes and roadblocks and the damage they do, consider the situations of poor children who make up almost 25% of our nation’s K-12 students and largely populate the schools deemed “failing” by the government.  For them  “potholes” are the adverse conditions in their personal lives, while “roadblocks” are the school practices that don’t serve their needs or interests.

Most of us recognize that the biggest potholes for poor children are malnutrition or outright hunger, the lack of adequate medical and dental care, and family economic instability. But there are other potholes just as dangerous and less visible. For example, research done in the 1980’s showed that the oral vocabularies of young children in poor families lag far behind those in working class families, and even farther behind children of professional parents. Recordings of language interactions between pre-school children and their family members revealed that children of poor families heard almost 1,500 words fewer per hour than children of wealthier ones, and rarely engaged in conversations with family members. As a result, many of them enter school disadvantaged, which proves to be a big pothole of learning to read, write and understand teacher directions.

Another language related pothole is the difficulty poor parents have in supporting their children’s education. Again, research shows that there are few, if any, books in the homes of most poor children and that their parents do not read to them regularly.  Those facts should not be surprising, since buying books is not a high priority for adults who are working to pay the rent and put food on the table; neither is finding time to read to your children when you are working two jobs.

Clearly, one more big pothole is not having a stable and livable home. According to a report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2.5 million children are homeless in the U.S. today. In an Oregon elementary school I visited, 25 % of the student body was counted as “homeless” in 2016. But even when parents have jobs and places to live, they may need to move frequently to follow those jobs or find cheaper living quarters. It’s no wonder that many children living in such unstable conditions have trouble managing their schoolwork.

Outside the home there are new potholes. Young children want to look and act like the strongest, most daring, kids in the neighborhood, and hope that one day they will actually be them. Besides, if they avoid the neighborhood stars and their followers, they may instead become targets of bullying. No internal deficits lead poor children to skip school, join gangs, or experiment with drugs; it’s the presence of social potholes in the streets and the difficulty of stepping around them.

Those people in charge of running high-poverty schools are not blind; they see the potholes for poor children just as clearly as we do. But too often they choose “remedies” that turn out to be “roadblocks”. For example the usual strategy today is to work at changing students from the outside-in. So they prohibit behaviors considered dysfunctional, and replace them with a set of “right ways” to learn and behave, plus a body of “good for everybody” lessons. However, children may not respond positively.

We see such approaches in the classrooms of many public and charter schools where desks are lined up in straight rows facing front, walls are bare of children’s writing and art, and bookcases hold only the prescribed textbooks. There teachers stand in front of the class “delivering instruction” and ordering “all eyes on me.” We also see it in teaching methods that feature only facts and algorithms, consider learning to be only memorization, and ask questions that have just one right answer. Above all, we see it in the endless test-prep exercises that are not so much the practice of the skills taught as they are indoctrination in how to respond to test questions in ways that will please those who score them.

Ironically, many supplementary and remedial programs, such as “Response to Intervention” and “English language Development” often turn out to be just another roadblock. Although they are good in theory, they turn out to be disruptions to the continuity and consistency students needed. When high-needs students leave their classrooms to receive instruction from a specialist who may be meeting with up to a hundred students a day, they miss the regular work that everyone else in their class is doing and the support from the one teacher who really knows them and their needs.

The final and deciding roadblock for many poor children is harsh school discipline. Under the banner of “No Excuses” or “Zero tolerance,” children from diverse cultures and dangerous neighborhoods, are expected to adopt the norms of traditional American middle class society as soon as they walk through the schoolhouse door. Those who fail to make the prescribed changes in dress, demeanor, and language are likely to suffer repeated detentions, suspensions, and, perhaps, expulsion. What many children learn from those punishments is not only to hate school but, also to hate themselves.

Unfortunately, a major effort to fill in all the potholes and remove all the roadblocks for poor children would be a long and expensive process; plus, one that many education policy makers and legislators will not support. Still, I believe that the efforts of many non-profit organizations and parent groups to improve the home situations of poor children will make a difference. And, I also have hopes for the increase in wrap-around schools that provide many of the health and social services poor children need. As a career-long educator, I will continue to write about the futility of the current school reform practices and suggest, if I can, more effective and humane ways to educate all children.

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