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November 12, 2013

Don't expect high scores from hungry students

Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — It seems odd, almost irrational, to hear all the talk of the new Common Core teaching methods and tests to measure student and teacher performance without first figuring out how to address the biggest problem many schools face: poverty.

We might have come up with the most-efficient way to structure classroom lessons and administer standardized exams, but as a society we haven’t been able to make sure students aren’t going to school hungry.

Experts have been telling us for decades that children do not do well in school when they are hungry, poorly clothed, suffering from poor hygiene or otherwise traumatized. Most people believe those experts, but you wouldn’t know it from our political response to the problem.

We might offer free or reduced-price lunches in school, but we haven’t done enough to eliminate the need for those free meals. And we know this is true.

The poverty rate nationally and locally continues to soar. In Otsego County, the latest statistics show that 16.4 percent of the population lives in poverty.

In Delaware County, the rate is 17.1 percent. In the Oneonta City School District, one of the wealthier districts in Otsego County, the poverty rate has jumped from 15.7 to 20 percent during the past decade.

And our government has responded to this crisis by cutting back on funding for the food-stamp program.

In recent weeks, more than 47 million people who get food stamps faced a cut in benefits as Congress began talks on whether to slice another $4 billion a year from the program. Observers say that food stamps help lift about 5 million people above the poverty line.

The impact on children is greater. In Otsego County, 22.5 percent of children under 18 live in poverty; in Delaware, it’s 26.7 percent. That’s why 44 percent of the schoolchildren in Otsego County qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Unfortunately, not enough families take advantage of the program.

This year, nearly a third of the state’s fourth-graders tested “well below proficient” on the new, tougher English Language Arts (ELA) exam. And it should be no surprise that 50 to 70 percent tested at this level in the state’s poorer districts.

Noting the issue has reached the crisis stage, the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy in Albany sponsored a forum last week on “Growing up in poverty in America: A call to action.”

Schuyler Center President Kate Breslin said in a statement that poverty “manifests itself in critical ways, including dramatic differences in areas like children’s health and educational opportunities and outcomes.”

That’s why so many parents and educators are reacting so negatively to the one-size-fits-all approach of the Common Core curriculum and its focus on tests, tests and more tests.

Lori Caplan, a former teacher and now superintendent of the Watervliet school district in Albany County, has responded to the Common Core initiative and its disregard for demographics by writing that the issue is not that children are smarter in wealthier districts but that “their basic needs are met daily and they come to school fed, dressed appropriately and with their health care needs attended to.”

She continued: “Poverty is the single most significant factor common among the school districts at the bottom of the list, not test performance or teacher ability. Until ‘the elephant’ is addressed, expect the achievement gap to continue to widen.”

Another point of contention with the Common Core is teacher accountability through evaluations and the test results of their students. Many educators insist there is more to teaching than meets the eye reviewing test scores.

Perhaps teachers facing classrooms with many students from low-income families also should be evaluated on how well they act as counselors, administer first-aid and take on the role of surrogate parents during the school day and beyond. And to think that some people think teachers use poverty as an excuse for poor test scores.

Obviously, there are no quick fixes to our struggling economy, especially in areas such as ours that traditionally are bypassed by the big swings in growth and prosperity. 

What our lawmakers can do in the short term is not go along with further cuts to the food-stamp program. They also could, as quickly as possible, pass an increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 an hour. The House GOP may not admit it, but many people living in poverty work for a living.

Clearly, the 21st-century skills deemed important by the Common Core are necessary for our children to succeed in the global economy. So let’s make it possible for all students to perform well.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.