A level playing field

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Free lunch is available to children in public schools who live in poverty as defined by the federal government. To be eligible for a free lunch, students’ household income must be no more than 135% of the poverty threshold. Eligibility for a reduced lunch, is a household income no more than 185% of the poverty threshold (Southern Education Foundation, 2013). For example a student in a single parent home with an annual income of less than $19,669 was eligible for a free lunch or less than $27,991 for a reduced-price lunch.

The U.S. has one of the highest relative child poverty rates in the developed world.(portside.org)

By the numbers, what does poverty look like in American public schools?

In 1989, 32% of the nation’s public school students were low-income. 
In 2000, the  rate increased to over 38%
By 2006, the national rate was 42%
In 2011 to 48%
In 2012 the rate rose to barely below one-half –49.6%

In 2014, 44% of all free lunch participants were under age 18

During his inauguration speech, President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty. In his 1964 State of the Union Address, he said, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.”  The poverty rate in 1964 was 19%, and ten years after Johnson declared a war on poverty, that rate dropped to 11.2% (Washington Post).

Today more than ever, education remains the key to escaping poverty, while poverty remains the biggest obstacle to education (Scientific Learning).

A few years ago I met a gentleman whom I only knew at the time as a physics teacher at a local public high school. He had been in the business industry for many years, and decided to pursue a long-held passion to teach high school physics. In a conversation at Starbucks one morning he asked me what I thought the biggest problem was in public education. I felt as if the house lights dimmed, the spotlight came on, and a podium with a microphone suddenly appeared. Someone had finally asked me the question. I had prepared for this moment. I was ready. But being the perennial teacher, I asked him to respond first. He went into a lucid, logical explanation about accountability. Administrators, teachers, students parents, he said, were not accountable for their jobs. There is validity to his statement. But that might be to the question of what are some issues schools face, and not the question of the biggest problem. Now it was my turn. I tapped the microphone twice to ensure my audience of one would hear me, and began.

I think the biggest problem in public education is poverty. The effects can be seen in children long before they enter school, and as they continue through school.  Suburban children begin school around age five. They have met growth  milestones (developmental, cognitive, neurological)  including  adequate nutrition, health care, live in a healthy environment encourage language and literacy development.  Many have been read to while some have attended preschool.

Schools in low socioeconomic areas are underfunded when compared to higher socioeconomic neighborhoods. They tackle chronic issues with a chronic lack of resources. (Huff Post)

Many children raised in poverty don’t begin the race at the same starting line as their suburban counterparts, thus they spend so much time just trying to catch up. In academic terms, this is an achievement gap. How do we narrow the achievement gap? First, address poverty. Allow living wages for families to make enough money to be independent. This will allow for all the needs of their children to be met. Provide schools with what they need to be successful (universal preschool, is a great start).

If 50% of children enrolled in public schools are eligible for free lunch, that says a lot about what they’re not getting at home. Critics of public schools unfairly blame teachers for many of the ills in our schools.

If a child comes to school hungry and leaves school hungry, how can that child compete with the classmate who doesn’t have to worry about food, violence?  (Education Dive).

No child should sit through school on Friday worried about whether or not they will eat again until Monday when they come back to school.  The focus should be on learning and playing. If we work to level the playing field, this would give all children a chance at an equal education. This is the foundation of our democracy. If we look at preventative measures and figure out that addressing poverty and literacy is far less expensive than incarceration and government assistance, we might begin to see the greatest problem in public education.
These are my reflections for today.


Author: Meg White

I am a lifelong educator and I hope to use this blog to reflect on what's happening in public education. These are my musings, opinions, and reflections. If you learn from them, good for us. Ignorance is no excuse. I have co-authored a book, "Questioning Assumptions and Challenging Perceptions: Becoming an Effective Teacher in Urban Environments" (available on amazon)

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