(Originally posted on Eknost’s Blog.)

By Dr. Eric D. Knost

In Education, Poverty Matters. It’s Not An Excuse, It’s a Necessary Conversation.

46 Million Americans live in poverty. Research has identified extraordinary disparities in the vocabulary and messages impoverished children are exposed to compared to their more affluent peers. The result? A large percentage of children who live in poverty enter kindergarten unprepared and already well behind. Disparities in those important foundational years compound over time. The dropout rate grows and when the average low income student does make it to twelfth-grade, he’s often four years behind grade level. Not an excuse, in fact, it should be inexcusable.

Our country remains alarmed by this and the reformers criticize educators for these unacceptable shortcomings. As the educational policy makers play defense, their collective efforts actually stagnate positive change while perpetuating the existing cycle. There is a malignancy in educational politics which is nourished by misinformation and a false assumption that competition will resolve these obvious disparities. This forces schools, states and even nations into competition on an ever changing, imbalanced playing field for a game of defense. The obvious occurs and the flourishing schools are exalted while the true educational needs of our lower income communities are ignored. Their schools struggle, we label them as failures and the blame game ensues.

Culpability begins on the larger map, as politicians and reformers notoriously point to discrepancies in academic successes between the U.S. and other industrialized nations. Unfortunately, most people are very limited in their ability to study these discrepancies. Instead, critics tend to rely upon and refer solely to the results published by PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. PISA measures random samples of 15 year old students every three years in reading, math and science literacy. The results for the U.S. are consistently mediocre at best and definitely, as presented, lackluster.

Most reformers care little about further analyses. Instead, a surface level view is utilized to brainwash our nation into believing we are producing predominantly ignorant graduates. The child poverty rate in the United States ranks as one of the highest when compared to other industrialized nations. Schools in our country with less that 10% poverty actually lead the otherwise top performing countries. The successes associated with our U.S. Merit Scholars and Advanced Placement students are forgotten in an attempt to keep our educators playing defense. Lower income and lower achieving students become pawns to aid the agendas of reformers and special interest groups.eric-d-knost-quote

The policy makers continue to redefine and raise expectations, raise accountability, increase testing and completely define schools on how they respond to these charges. These reforms prove to be more effective for students who are already higher achieving, while the successful continue to succeed and the struggling continue to struggle. Even without accountability, schools can be easily labeled by their zip codes. Flourishing communities house succeeding school systems and poverty stricken communities usually do not. Regardless, we continue with a one-size-fits-all system and we fulfill the prophecy.

Mediocre schools are allowed to exist in their mediocre status while all sorts of threats, warnings and labels are attached. Once they are deemed a failure, their turnaround hinges on their ability to quickly perform like other successful schools. Regardless of the issues associated with poverty, their students must attend school regularly, not drop out, score in the upper tiers of high stakes tests, graduate to college and stay in college. If these things do not occur at an acceptable rate, they are deemed failures. Unaccredited school students are allowed by law to transfer to other school districts at the struggling district’s expense. While the majority of students choose to remain, resources are depleted, drastic cuts are made to staffing, schools are closed and eventually the district faces bankruptcy.

How are these students to find success in such situations?

Kids must learn to thrive in our world. Schools need to embed much more than reading, writing and math into the routines of our children. Schools have to focus on resilience, compassion, motivation, critical thinking, self-discipline, character, creativity, curiosity, persistence and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the noose of accountability that continues to tighten doesn’t acknowledge any of these needed traits which are found in all successful schools. Children must learn to thrive and their desire to thrive must be nurtured. Reading, writing and math does nothing for a child who doesn’t develop the desire and ability to thrive in our world.

Thriving is paramount. We need to transform, not reform how we think about educating kids in poverty. We need to focus on how we embed important qualities in their education instead of worrying about how our country ranks on a random test for fifteen year olds, which lacks any semblance of external validity. But as the noose tightens, education stays on defense and the same practices perpetuate regardless of the zip code.

A paradigm shift in how we educate our poverty stricken communities is needed. It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense but it takes resources and undying supports.

Hire the best administrators and hold them accountable. Support their ability to hire, develop and retain outstanding teachers. Significantly lower class sizes. Analyze and align the curriculum to the needs of the local students. Assess to inform instruction. Create and support structured early childhood efforts including Parents as Teachers, preschool beginning at age three and full day kindergarten for all students. Create home visit programs, develop extensive community engagement and implement meaningful outreach to parents. Assign champions directly to every single child. Work to identify their passions at a very early age. Recognize, nurture and develop those passions as kids grow. Make kids important and do everything possible to connect them individually to their school. Build relationships, acknowledge all accomplishments and never discourage a school that is making progress, even at a slow rate. Rally around their efforts, publicize their successes and show the community what it looks like when kids thrive. Never thwart their direction by placing them back on an uneven field of competition.

This is where the collective desire to transform underachieving schools is truly tested. It’s time to focus on what matters. Kids matter, not test scores. Communities matter, not consolidated school districts. Educational interests matter, not commercial interests. Assess kids to inform instruction and to define needed supports. Don’t let overwhelming test scores define kids, communities or our nation.

If our kids are thriving, we will be the envy of every nation.

Dr. Eric D. Knost serves as the Superintendent for the Rockwood School District in South St. Louis County, Missouri. He shares his insights on his website, eknost’s Blog. Follow Dr. Knost on Twitter at @ROCK_Supt.