Poverty and Our Schools
This whole month, Occupy Phoenix is offering a month of education and teach-ins at our Free University. The first five began on January 7th, the day of Occupy Phoenix’s Rally for Education. (Check out some great videos of that day at our official YouTube channel, here and here). One of those first teach-ins seemed especially relevant to the message and concerns of the 99%– school administrator Ana Ramos-Pell’s presentation on the connection between poverty and school performance. She also offered an exciting model for how we can address these issues and think of education in America in a whole new light.
Below, you’ll find video of Ms. Ramos-Pell’s teach-in, as well as the drafted text of her speech.
Poverty and Education – January 7, 2012
A Teach-In for Occupy for Education
by Ana Ramos-Pell
Thank everyone for being here this afternoon. I know that you are very busy. I’m so excited that you care enough about future generations that you came today. Today we want to explore the myth of failure in our schools. Raise your hand if you attended public schools at some point in your life? Quite a few of us. Raise your hand if this enriched your life? Did it help to make you successful? So many of us have been touched, have had our lives made richer, by public schools. So, who here would eliminate public schools? Anybody? Those who want to eliminate our public schools, to see them closed down—I don’t even know where that comes from. I hear it on the news: “schools are failing!” But I don’t see schools “failing.” So, what is this about?
Let us try to unravel this topic… American schools have educated an enormous amount of people, more than any other modern country. Today, almost 90 percent of American students attend public elementary and secondary schools, which do not charge tuition but rely on local and state taxes for funding. The other ten percent attend private schools, for which their families pay tuition. Four out of five private schools are run by religious groups, where religious instruction is part of the curriculum. There is also a small but growing number of parents who educate their children themselves, a practice known as home schooling.
Also, as of 2005, some 85% of adult Americans have at least a high school degree today, up from just 25% in 1945. Having said that, it’s pretty obvious we are talking about the 99%.
There is no doubt that today, some schools are not doing well. Are we really failing? Is it the curriculum? The standards, professional training for teachers? Each one of these questions is a separate topic that we could spend hours discussing.
But, today, I will present a model that has worked in countries such as Finland, and Holland. Finland believes that education is not about competition, it’s about cooperation. It provides healthcare, education Preschool-PhD for its citizenry as well as teacher, training, recognition and compensation above all other countries. It is ranked among the best, and some studies refer to it as the best.
Finland’s schools owe their newfound fame primarily to one study: the PISA survey, conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The survey compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math, and science. Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies on every survey since 2000, neck and neck with superachievers such as South Korea and Singapore… Throughout the same period, the PISA performance of the United States has been middling, at best.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility commented that, “while Americans love to talk about competition… ‘nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable.’ In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Puronen: ‘Real winners do not compete.’ It’s hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland’s success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.”
“From [Salzburg's] point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?
The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do… Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity… Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.”
A model that resembles Finland’s was started at Mustang Elementary School, a high poverty at a local district in Arizona, from 2002 until 2011. When I say “high poverty,” I mean 95-98 percent of the student population.
Before this model was started, the school had been a failing school for 3 years, there had been a parade of Principals that came and went and teacher mobility was 90%. Parents were suing the district for civil rights violations and the media often appeared at the school wanting to interview teachers, parents and administration. I was brought in to act as principal to this “failing” school in 2002.
Mustang has between 1200- 760 students and a free lunch program that fed 95 percent of these students. This count is an indication of the abject poverty that our students face. I have always thought of myself as coming from a poor background, but—believe me—compared to Mustang children, I was not poor. To add to this, the majority of the students were none English speakers. Some came from Serbia, Nigeria, Sierra Leon, Iraq….most from Mexico.
It’s an interesting phenomena that, because most our students spoke English as a second language, policy makers would have you believe that the reason children in these types of schools fail is due to their lack of English language proficiency. As an educator who has been engaged with these students for over 20 years, I am here to tell you that, in the long run, the reason children in schools such as Mustang fail is because of poverty, not because of an English language deficit, or lack of standards or bad teachers. As a small experiment, I have tested native English speakers using the same test that the state uses to determine English proficiency and many of these native English speakers have done poorly. The reason….lack of appropriate vocabulary. Poor kids begin school equipped with a much smaller vocabulary and with little exposure to experiences outside of their neighborhoods.
As a person whose first language is not English, I can also assure you that speaking Spanish has always been an asset for me, not a hindrance. I’ve always gotten paid more money for being able to speak other languages, not less. It is not the language, it is the understanding and experience.
Please indulge me with a little one-minute exercise. Close your eyes and try to think of your first memories, first recollections. Most of us can conjure up some pretty amazing memories, both positive and negative. Family, toys, music… This “first memory” exercise is a shortened version of a lesson teachers do at Mustang in Kindergarten. If children cannot yet write, we ask them to pictures. We discovered that many children had first memories such as these:
- Isabel remembered a broken car that could not be fixed and having to go to a neighbor’s house to eat.
- Jeremy remembered visiting his Mom in jail. He was born in jail, as were many of our students.
- Twins Joey and Vicky remembered their parents “giving themselves shots a lot” and that they had no food.
No one can tell me that these memories do not affect a child’s ability to learn. These experiences have nothing to do with learning a second language. These are issues of poverty. Granted not all poor children have these experiences, but a significant number do. And there is a strong possibility that these experiences hinder their success.
So…. what do we do as a society? What can we as a solitary individual do? What can possibly be done? I believe that there needs to be a radical change in our educational paradigm, similar to the one used in Finland and other advanced countries. The belief that schools are here only to provide lessons about how to read, write and learn math must be changed to a more comprehensive model such as the one at Mustang. A model that treats the whole child. The Mustang model includes a curriculum that provides individualized literacy instruction for each child, training for teachers that drive this instruction and a sacred morning reading block that lasted 90 minutes. But there were also partnerships with government agencies, such as the city, neighborhood and state level. We partnered with the police department and Neighborhood Services for security, Scottsdale Health, Kitchen on the Street and St Mary’s Food bank, as well as groups of community stakeholders that have united for a common cause. Partnerships were key to Mustang’s success.
Here is an example of a huge project that was accomplished in a cooperative way for the children. The Boys and Girls’ Club built on the Mustang Campus is a result of a group called the Mustang Revitalization Coalition. The idea began with 4 people who met in the little conference room at Mustang. I, the principal, was one of those four individuals. From four it grew to 30 with representation from the city, police, community members… and within three years from that first meeting. ‘Voila!’ We had a full Boys and Girls’ Club…amazing! Today, that same Boys and Girls’ Club it is full of Mustang kids every weekday after school.
By partnering with 21st Century Grant, our students get extended day instruction and enrichment classes. By partnering with the Northeast Phoenix Neighborhood Action Alliance, a Safe Path was built so that our students are now able to walk to school feeling safe and secure. Before this group, parents and students had to crawl under a wire fence on their way to Mustang. This group still supports Mustang with generous donations and most importantly, ideas that help keep the high quality standards we now have at the school.
By partnering with our District City Attorney, he was able to levy the largest fine given to a slum landlord. You see we had a student who lived in this particular complex come to school with a cockroach in his ear. I remember testifying along with one of my nurses on behalf of this child.
I say “one of my nurses” because at Mustang as a result of our partnership with Scottsdale Health, we offer free medical care to all of our students. And by the way we also house the only on site dental clinic in Arizona. Scottsdale Health was able to provide a school nurse, when district was going to cut the position.
And most importantly—without food, our students would not be able to think, let alone learn. Our partnership with St. Mary’s Food bank provides food for our after school program and Kitchen on the Street packs backpacks with food for weekends. These partnerships assure that our students do not experience hunger. Our children can now have childhood memories that do not include hunger.
Believe it or not these are not all of our partners, there is Camp Swift, La Casa de Cristo, Dessert Bible Church, and La Sagrada Familia…….and many many more. So many, I cannot name them all today.
My point is that the educational paradigm must change. We did it at Mustang and I am encouraged when other districts now come and tour and study the model. I am very proud to have been a part of these efforts.
There is a researcher by the name of Dr. Berliner at ASU West who presents data from a study that disproves the notion that public schools are failing. He randomly chose a cohort consisting of several thousand public schools in the U.S.:
He discovered that, in schools where there is 35% poverty or less, once the statistics of the children with poverty were removed, the schools were of the highest international academic performance… actually better than any other country in the world! The same statistics occurred in schools with approximately a 40% poverty rate. Once a school had a 50% poverty rate, the school as a whole was suffering and had difficulty recovering on any level. A school with a 75% poverty rate or higher was completely failing internally.
Mustang had over a 95% poverty rate, yet had been Performing Plus for 3 years and out of corrective action for 2. A feat that has been said to be virtually impossible. Yes, we had sound curriculum and educational practices, without which we would not have succeeded. But other schools have these as well, yet they have not succeeded.
My belief is that it took a government component, an academic component and a community component—our partners in the community are just as responsible for the school’s success. It was all about cooperation! In my experience, we are all in this together. Don’t buy into the hype that our schools have failed…..it’s about poverty. If we can cooperate together to combat that, who knows what we can do!
I’ll leave you with a challenge: Get the facts, and support our public schools. After all they are here for you. Get involved! YOU can make a difference!
Check the schedule, Occupy Educated, and facebook for more scheduled Teach-Ins!