Last August, Business Insider published a report from the Brookings Institute highlighting the 15 cities where poverty is growing fastest in the nation. Greensboro-High Point tied for 10th, Winston-Salem tied for 8th, and Raleigh tied for 3rd with Charlotte.
Earlier this year, The Washington Post published a study by the Southern Education Foundation that found an incredibly high number of students in public schools live in poverty. And in April, the journal Nature Neuroscience published a study that linked poverty to brain structure. All three publications confirm what educators have known for years: Poverty is the biggest obstacle in public education.
Yet many “reformers” and North Carolina legislators want you to believe that bad teachers are at the root of what hurts our public schools. Just this past November, Haley Edwards in Time Magazine published an article titled “Rotten Apples” that suggests that corporate America and its business approaches (Bill Gates, etc.) can remedy our failing public schools by targeting and removing the “rotten apples” (bad teachers) and implementing impersonal corporate practices.
I understand the analogy: bad teachers, rotten apples. However, it is flawed. Removing rotten apples does not restore the orchard. Rather, improving the orchard makes for better apples. Teachers are more like farmers, not apples. Students are what are nurtured. What we need to do is improve the conditions in which schools operate and the environments in which our students are raised; we must address elements that contribute to poverty.
North Carolinians know agriculture. We understand that any crop requires an optimum environment to produce the best harvest. Farmers must consider weather, resources, and time to work with the land. Since many factors which affect the harvest are beyond their control, farmers make the best of what they have; they must marry discipline with a craft. Teachers do the same.
But if the environment suffers and resources are limited, then agriculture suffers. Is that the fault of farmers? If variables surrounding the environment of public education are constantly being changed by governing bodies, then are teachers at fault?
Another fallacy with the rotten apple analogy is that the end product (singular test scores) is a total reflection of the teacher. Just like with farming, much is out of the hands of the education system. One in five children in North Carolina lives in poverty and many more have other pressing needs that affect the ability to learn. Some students come to school just to be safe and have a meal. But imagine if students came to school physically, emotionally, and mentally prepared to learn.
In some instances, resources vital to public education are siphoned off to other “factory farms” and for-profit entities. Just this past December, the Winston-Salem Journal reported that Rockingham County schools did not have enough money and were having to rob “Peter to pay Paul” just to keep public schools open and equipped with the basic supplies, even toilet paper. But at the same time, Sen. Phil Berger’s own son was slated to open up Providence Charter High School with taxpayer money in Rockingham County. Luckily, that endeavor never materialized, but the state’s Charter School Advisory Board just recommended that 16-18 new charter schools be financed by taxpayers.
The soil in which the public school system is rooted has been altered so much in the past decade that the orchard where teachers “grow” their crops has been stripped of much of its vitality. Look at the number of standardized tests, curriculum models and teacher evaluation protocols thrown at public schools. And those will change again with Race to the Top money running out.
We are treating the symptoms, not the malady. We are trying to put a shine on the apples by “raising” graduation rates with new grading scales. It is analogous to constructing a new white picket fence around an orchard and thinking that the crop will automatically improve.
But our elected officials can help or at least remove the obstacles for those who can.
The General Assembly can invest more in pre-K programs. They can stop funding for-profit charter and corporate-run virtual schools. They can expand Medicaid so more kids come to school healthy. They can reinstitute the Teaching Fellows program to keep our bright future teachers here in North Carolina. Then they can give decent raises to veteran teachers so they finish their careers here.
Our public school teachers and administrators are not looking for a profit to gain; they already see the value in each and every student.
Imagine those apples.
Stuart Egan teaches English at West Forsyth High School.