13 Mar

Interview Across a Breakfast Table: What frightens me?

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Jenny’s question for me today is one that I could easily answer in a not-so-serious way:

What frightens you?

But my answer is as serious as can be. What frightens me, more than anything, is the amount of poverty amid such wealth in the United States.

More to the point, I’m frightened by our collective failure to recognize — or at least to act on — the fact that poverty is the primary crisis facing America’s efforts to educate its youngest citizens:

The 21st century has sharply increased the proportion of parents who are unemployed, whose jobs do not pay enough to provide basic food, shelter, clothing and health care for their children, and/or whose immigrant status limit their capacity to navigate the education system and restrict them to a shadow economy.

This devastating reality demands a set of education reforms radically different from those on which policy has fixated of late. Without a set of supports that enable all students to acquire basic literacy, problem-solving and communications skills, kindergarten teachers must tailor their instruction to an ever-broader range of academic capacities and behavioral challenges. And too many students will be doomed from a very early age to remedial education and dim prospects of life success. Until we ensure that basic, preventable medical problems do not keep large numbers of students out of class and lack of food does not prevent them from focusing, effective teaching will become further out of reach. So long as we put school nurses, social workers and counselors on the “expendable” list when budgets are tight, teachers will shoulder more non-teaching burdens, and instruction will be impeded. In the absence of systemic, consistent after-school and summer enrichment, a growing number of students will lose much of what they gain during the day and over the school year, wasting taxpayer dollars and future talent.

Not only have we not addressed these realities, we have exacerbated them.

I can’t think of anything scarier than our inability to recognize the facts for what they are, or the consequences of not fixing the situation.

What question did I ask Jenny today?

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