“Failing schools” is the refrain of the politician, critical of the education that some children receive. The blame is usually laid at the teachers’ feet. The assumption that follows is that if the bad teachers are fired and new teachers brought in, then all will be well in that school: test scores will rise, and the students will be saved. (In our quantification-obsessed world, the two are the same.) Is it a coincidence that failing schools are invariably placed in communities that are struggling?

Poor people, disenfranchised people, and shunned minorities end up in poor areas where they can nonetheless barely afford to live. People with mental illness, drug addicts, and criminals find their way there too. It is almost as if they are herded. There are few jobs, dangerous street life, little hope, and less support. Hungry kids don’t learn well. Neither do traumatized kids, nor unsafe kids, nor kids where drugs are prevalent. Children who are not read to, or helped, or nourished, or paid attention to, or cared about by society, or feel ashamed for what has been done to them, whose schools are under-funded, with high student/teacher ratio and poor conditions, are not going to achieve the same level of success as their luckier counterparts in wealthy communities. The cause is obvious. The victims who teach and study there need no more blame or shame. No more studies need to be done.

I recently read a longwinded article about what makes a good teacher.  One of the studies findings is that a teacher must get a student’s attention before anything can be taught. (Duh.) Another thing they observed: it is not enough for a teacher to know the subject, but also to be able to enter the students’ mindset in order to communicate the lessons to them. (More Duh.) The two principles are connected: The students’ minds must first focus and then be led along from where they are to where the teacher wants them to go. I believe this approach applies to everything we learn throughout life, with or without a teacher. Start where you are, focus your mind, and move along, one step at a time. How is a hungry, poorly nourished, fearful, shamed, disenfranchised, uncared for child’s attention be on his or her lessons? How can you just blame a school for that child not succeeding?

Wealthy communities have resources to devote to their community schools. Poor communities do not. Thus, in poor communities, a lot less is given to those who need much more. And when the poor, disadvantaged students don’t achieve like kids who come from privilege, the schools and the teachers are blamed by the society at large.

What other choice does our society have but to blame the teacher and the administration? The only other alternative is to see it as a total societal failing. Then we would have to do something we don’t want to do: Change. But if we, as a society, could face the problem, it could then begin to come into focus and positive change would become possible. At present, we would rather push struggling people into a ghetto and point fingers rather than devote resources to transforming an impoverished area into a proud community with opportunities to thrive. It is far easier to blame than create.

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