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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Waves of Poverty and Homework

This week provided a number of interesting opportunities for professional enrichment. Three different organizations in the area hosted conferences on the impact of poverty on learners. It was my good fortune to listen to Beth Lindsay Templeton on Tuesday (supported by the New York Chapter of the ASCD), Ruby Payne on Wednesday (hosted by the Schenectady Foundation), and Jonathan Kozol on Thursday (sponsored by the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy). These presentations were insightful and offered considerable resources that could be used as leverage in supporting children of poverty.
It was a thought provoking experience in both a reflective and introspective manner. I grew up in an impoverished environment headed by parents who left school after tenth grade to start their family. The burden of seven children supported by adults who lacked the education to secure adequate resources was shared through welfare services and free lunch at school. It was a childhood bereft of dreams and burgeoning with nightmares.
During the conferences I was able to read about, and listen to, information on the gripping influence poverty has on children from the perspective and distance in time of an adult, albeit one with vivid memories of the stark reality of poverty. Additionally, I was in a position to examine the relationship of poverty and schooling through the filter of someone with considerable experience as an educator working in schools constricted by poverty. I felt that I was looking at the issue from inside out and upside down. It was a lot like watching clothes tumble in the dryer.
As I learned more about contending with poverty as an educator I found myself also thinking of the ever-present issue of assessments and learning standards. I was struck by the juxtaposition of the controversial implementation of the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) that subjects teachers to a strenuous and twisted relationship between assessments and teacher evaluation, and the demands schools inadvertently place on children suffering from poverty. What bothered me was the thought of teachers in schools across the country who complain, rightfully so, about the unrealistic mandates and compressed time demands of state initiated requirements, but then continue to thrust significant amounts of homework on learners wrestling with poverty and the many factors that inhibit the ability of the learners to successfully complete homework assignments. That is,  referencing my own personal experiences - cramped, noisy, distracting living quarters; parents who were absent or unable or unwilling to help with homework; the responsibility of caring for younger siblings; the need to work a part-time job to help support the family,... There are some learners who pass their classroom based responsibilities, but fail a class because of the impact of their absence of homework and the subsequent zeroes that follow.
How do these teachers not see that they are inflicting a similar type of burdensome, counterproductive measures upon their learners as the state department of education is invoking upon them? These actions border on being punitive and result in poor children being perceived as poor learners, which may reinforce an often stereotypical belief.
Homework alone, if it's generated in an attempt to encourage and allow impoverished learners to "catch up" is unlikely to be a factor - even if it is completed. This indirect form of instruction, performed in the absence of teachers, is not the difference maker needed to close achievement gaps between learners from fortunate environments/conditions and those far less fortunate. If homework is assigned to extend opportunities then it appears to be a belief founded on the "more and harder" concept of improving performance.  As in, if these students only worked more and tried harder, they would be better.  Let's not confuse quantity with quality regarding extensions of learning. More direct instruction, with engaging and challenging tasks are needed to stimulate improvement. Extended school calendars, in hours and days, together with quality instruction and appropriate support are desired to provoke increases in academic outcomes. 
Similarly, simply mandating APPR by the state education department will not ensure an increase in the quality of instruction among teachers. Nor will longer days and an expanded school year. Ultimately, productive staff development, the ability to appropriately wield professional discretion in response to instructional needs, a collaborative work culture, sufficient material and technological support - a systematic instructional infrastructure - are among the many factors that must prevail if we expect to reach our potential as learners and teachers.
How easy it would be if we could just issue a decree such as APPR or more homework and instantly improve instruction. However, that tactic will prove as futile as the efforts of the ancient Danish King, Canute, who attempted to demonstrate his power by going to the shore front and commanding the waves to stop.

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