Hungry, tired kids are difficult to teach. Their environment, health and community have an enormous impact on their ability to learn. However, rather than recognize this catastrophe, we continue to blame our teachers and schools for failing our children. It’s akin to blaming doctors for failing to save children dying from malnutrition.
In 2010-11, 1,065,794 homeless students were reported enrolled in school, a 13 percent increase from 2009-10 (939,903) according to data released by the National Center for Homeless last month.
To make matters even worse, this figure does not include homeless infants, children not enrolled in school, and homeless students that schools simply failed to identify. These children live on the streets, in shelters, motels, and in corridors loaned by friends and relatives.
It is hardly surprising that only 52 percent of the homeless students who took standardized tests were deemed to be proficient in reading, and only 51 percent passed math tests.
More bad news: the latest edition of the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF's) report on child poverty in developed countries found that about 12 million children in the U.S. live in relative poverty, which gives our country the dubious honor of second place on the "relative child poverty" table – above Latvia, Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, and 29 others.
Only Romania ranks higher, with 25 percent, compared to our 23 percent. Recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics confirm these figures, estimating the percentage of American children living in poverty at 21.6 percent, while the figure for Hispanic children soars to nearly one in three, and a staggering 38 percent for African-American children.
Much of the mainstream media has latched on to America’s supposed poor results on international tests as justification for its teacher-bashing rhetoric. Students from Finland frequently come out on top in these tests, so it is often cited as the country to emulate. Rarely mentioned is the fact that Finland's child poverty rate at 2.5 percent, about a tenth of ours, which is certainly worth emulating.
Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney often mention the importance of education, usually in the context of improving the country’s economy and creating jobs, or of making college more affordable, yet little mention is made of the underlying societal problems which prevent schools from succeeding.
And, despite claims to the contrary, these problems can be fixed – as demonstrated by the fact that Canada and the U.S. have the same relative child poverty rate of about 25 percent before government intervention is factored in. However, once government taxes, benefits, and other social programs kick in, Canada's child poverty rate drops to 13 percent, while America's remains above 23 percent.
The introduction to UNICEF’s report eloquently warns that “failure to protect children from poverty is one of the most costly mistakes a society can make. The heaviest cost of all is borne by the children themselves. But their nations must also pay a very significant price – in reduced skills and productivity, in lower levels of health and educational achievement, in increased likelihood of unemployment and welfare dependence, in the higher costs of judicial and social protection systems, and in the loss of social cohesion.”
Children have only one opportunity to develop in mind and body, so we must commit to protect them from poverty during prosperity, recession, and depression. Otherwise, we are failing our most vulnerable citizens and wasting our most precious natural resource, while storing up intractable social and economic problems for the years immediately ahead.
Until we tackle childhood poverty, blaming teachers for our apparent inability to compete on international student assessments is wholly unjust.
Daniel Ward is the editor of Language Magazine.