Joe, a sophomore in high school, has lived in his family’s home since he was two years old. He attended a local preschool when he was a toddler, and he knew his letters, numbers, and shapes by the time he was three. He began his formal schooling with a love of books, mostly because his parents read to him every night. He has been enrolled in the same school system since kindergarten.
Joe’s mother works in the human resources department of a local business, and his father is an accountant. Both of his parents went to college, and both monitor Joe’s grades by logging into the parent access page of Joe’s school’s grading system. Though Joe is only in tenth grade, his parents have taken him to visit the campus of several local colleges and universities; the family attends sporting events on campus and then strolls around the area to in an effort to help Joe get an understanding of what he’s working toward.
At the end of the school day, Joe goes directly to athletic practice (he plays sports for two of the three seasons) or, occasionally, to a student council or other extracurricular club meeting. By the time he returns home, around 5:00pm, the rest of the family is there. They eat dinner together, and then Joe and his siblings go to their respective rooms to complete their homework and study for tests or quizzes they’ll have next day. Joe’s parents know which classes Joe should have homework in, and though they leave the responsibility of studying and completing work to him, they ask about his progress periodically. Joe participates consistently in class, completes his homework carefully, and takes pride in his work.
John, who is many of the same classes as Joe, moved into a rented apartment with his mother in October and transferred to his local school at that time. Before then, he was living with his maternal uncle in a rented apartment in a neighboring state. This is the third school district John has attended since beginning high school, and he is reluctant to make permanent connections to teachers and other students in his school because he suspects he will move yet again in the near future.
John did not attend preschool, and as a result, he entered kindergarten already behind most of his peers in terms of knowledge, skills, and socialization. John’s mother has a high-school diploma, and John doesn’t know his father. Nobody on his mother’s side of the family attended college, and nobody in John’s life spoke regularly to him about the importance of education.
John wakes himself up each the morning and walks to school. He is chronically late, and as per his high school’s policy, he is issued detentions, and eventually, suspensions, for excessive lateness. Because he has missed so much total time (even though it’s only 10 minutes here or 12 minutes there) in his first-period class, he is behind on content and classwork, and he’s missed numerous quizzes, tests, and warm-up activities. The rest of the day, though John is generally pleasant and cordial to his teachers, he puts his head down and sleeps in most of his classes. He occasionally does classwork that seems to interest him, but he does not do work outside the walls of the school building. He takes tests and quizzes that are administered, usually completing the objective portion, but he does not respond to short-answer or essay questions. He struggles to pass each class, not because of a lack of ability, but because he simply does not try consistently.
John’s mother, who has been inconsistently employed for much of her adult life, is currently working a second-shift job, so she does not arrive home until 11:30pm. When he gets home from school, John plays video games, prepares food for himself, and has friends–many of whom do drugs and take advantage of John’s mother’s absence–over to his apartment. He does not go to sleep until after midnight, and he comes to school the following day unprepared to learn–sometimes because of a lack of sleep, and sometimes because he is or recently has been under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
John does not bring books home from school. He does not do homework. He does not study. He does not read. He does not think about school after he leaves it. He does not eat healthful meals. And John, who has grown up in an environment where no attention is devoted to the pursuit of academic success, does not see a problem with his lifestyle. He knows no different.
John and Joe are in the same history class. The teacher, who is one of the most enthusiastic and veteran educators in the building, tailors his instruction to meet the needs of the different learners in his classroom. He is a cheerleader for all of his students, and has encouraged John to try his best and has encouraged Joe to keep up his hard work. He calls home to let parents know when their children are doing well, and he calls home when he has concerns about any of his students. Though he has tried numerous times to make contact with John’s mother, his calls have not been returned. He has alerted counselors and administrators that he is concerned about John’s home life, but despite school officials’ efforts, the teacher has not seen any improvement in John’s academic achievement. The teacher does his very best for all his students each day, but for some students, even his very best isn’t enough. And that realization, to the teacher, is supremely disheartening.
In short, John’s and Joe’s socioeconomic situations, coupled with the degree to which their families provide loving, stable home environments in which academics are valued, have separated the two students since birth.
There are 1,440 minutes in a day; John and Joe see their history teacher for 50 of those 1,440 minutes. Though their history teacher is one of the best educators in the school district, it is virtually impossible for him to erase the effects of his students’ socioeconomic and familial situation in the very limited amount of time, proportionally speaking, that he spends with them.
Unfortunately, the United States is filled with Johns. There is much evidence that the achievement gap begins before students even enter kindergarten, and there is just as much evidence suggesting that poverty is an obstacle which, in academic terms (and in many other and more obvious terms), is very difficult to overcome.
Critics of public schools are quick to claim that the system is failing its students, but those same critics fail to acknowledge the role society’s ills play in a student’s academic life. Further, critics who complain that the United States is falling behind other countries in its efforts to educate students generally do not take poverty rates–along with the philosophy of American public education, which dictates that we have a responsibility to educate each and every child (as opposed to other countries, whose best and brightest go to school and whose less-than-stellar students drop out)–into consideration.
It is certainly no secret that qualified, caring, knowledgeable, and hard-working teachers can influence student learning in many different ways. However, it is unreasonable to expect teachers, who in some cases see students for just minutes each day, to erase lifetimes’ worth of hardships that can virtually prevent students from succeeding in school. It is unreasonable to ignore factors like substance abuse, which chemically alters a growing child’s brain–and, as a result, alters his capacity and willingness to learn. It is unreasonable to ignore factors like domestic abuse, of which more students most educators realize are either victims or witnesses. It is unreasonable to ignore poverty and the glaringly negative effects it has on children’s lives. And it is unreasonable to ignore every other factor that negatively affects a child’s ability to succeed in school.
It is even more unjust to implement a teacher evaluation system which pins teachers’ livelihoods on whether students like John and Joe pass meaningless high-stakes tests.
After all, if a hard-working teacher’s career depends on such an asinine, unproven, and arbitrary evaluation system, who will be fortunate enough to teach the Joes–and who will have the misfortune of teaching the Johns? What a shame that reformers will ultimately force caring teachers to think in such a way.
The differences between John and Joe are striking, yet these two students represent only a fraction of the diverse experiences students in any given class bring with them to school each day.
But in America, we educate every student–regardless of socioeconomic background; ethnicity; race; gender; physical, emotional, or mental limitations; or any other factor which contributes to who that student is as a person. It is our job, as educators, to do so to the best of our ability.
Shame on those who seek to “reform” public education by blaming teachers for problems that are well beyond their control.
If we fix society and improve life for the Johns, and improve life for every other student who needs help, the problems with schools will improve quickly–and immeasurably.