Saturday, March 14, 2015

Canaries, Schools & Poverty

Let's step back from public education itself for a moment. Look at the bigger picture.

The economic engine of the US is messed up. Call it conspiracy, policy, oligarchy, or just a bad turn-- the poor are being left further and further behind, and the rich are consolidating their own piece of the pie. The shared energy and mission of the country are fragmenting, and more and more people and communities are sinking into poverty. But this is a long, slow process, and it wouldn't show up everywhere at once.

What might be a leading indicator of the growing corrosive and destructive power of poverty? How about schools-- the common good that is supposed to be provided by all citizens for all citizens.

Public education is the canary in the coal mine, an early notable indicator that something is wrong, that something toxic and damaging is in the air. And of the public schools, those that are already weak and poor, least able to stand the shock and the strain, that are most bowed under the weight of poverty will start to falter first.

Now, when the canary starts to falter and fall, that's a sign that something is wrong, that we need to get the people out of the mine or more fresh air into it.

But suppose instead we had a bunch of people who said, "No, what we need to do is work on resuscitating the canary! We need to hire canary doctors and develop new canary breathing programs." Those would be the reformers. They are not wrong about the distress of the canary, or the need to do something before the canary dies, but it's a huge mistake to ignore the conditions that are killing the canary in the first place. All the respiratory therapy in the world will not save the canary if we don't get it some oxygen and get rid of the bad gas poisoning its system.

The Data Overlords want to run extensive tests on the canary. "Let's measure its oxygen intake every five minutes. If we keep measuring, it should start breathing more freely." When questioned on that point, they simply reply, "Look, this is the same oxygen intake test we use for those canaries up on the surface in the special gilded cages. Why shouldn't these mine canaries get to take the same test?"

Charter operators just want to bring in other canaries. "Your canary is weak and stupid and has a bad attitude," they say. "What we need are these fresh new alternative canaries. Once we get those canaries in there, they will breathe so much better than your dumb canary."

Meanwhile, the profiteers are in talks with the mine operators. "If you would just unleash the power of the free market, we could make a delicious and profitable canary stew."

When some folks try to push the idea that pumping oxygen into the mine could help revive the canary, some reformers cry foul. "What's the matter with you? Don't you believe this canary can breathe? Do you think this canary isn't good enough to survive!"

Meanwhile, the canaries continue to die and air in the mine becomes more and more toxic, until not a canary or an eagle or a full grown human could hope to survive there. The canaries absolutely deserve attention and assistance, and we absolutely have an imperative to keep them alive. But if we don't find a way to replace the bad air with good, to sweep out the lung-clenching methane of poverty and bring in some oxygen, we'll just be stuck in endless cycle of canary rescue, complete with arguments about how to rescue the canary, who should rescue the canary, and whether or not anyone can profit from rescuing the canary. All the while the bad air spreads.


  1. Wow, your most brilliant, exact, complete analogy yet. It conveys everything so clearly.

  2. Love the metaphor.
    OK, deep breath. I'm going to ask a question that might make me come off as a jerk. Where are the parents in this equation? As a person who came from poverty, and whose parents came from poverty, I can say that I know what it looks and smells like. The mentality of my family is what helped me and my siblings to find a way out through education. I've spent many years of my life working closely with people in poverty. I've noticed that there are some who understand that education is the answer and try to help their children make the most of their school experiences so as to rise above. I've also noticed that some people, even with education, do not want to invest in their children's lives and expect the schools to take care of everything. The emphasis is on coolness or some other "stuff" that seems to be popular these days. I've noticed that people with that mentality seek the company of other people with the same mentality (big surprise) and don't even want "support" from others in terms of educating the kids. Even with my willingness to help, to offer support, these people don't want it. They simply don't value it. It is heartbreaking, but I have lived it, up close and personal, and it breaks my heart.

    If the students' parents do not truly value education beyond just the "go to school and get good grades" (which the kids are very unlikely to do) then how will the children recognize school as anything more than just a duty to endure, if that? I cannot help but see that the mentality of so many children is the result of their parents' message that school is just something you have to do and nothing more. Combine that with the messages in music that they are listening to all day long, I just don't know how the process of cultivating a tender mind and heart can take place. I've invested very, very heavily in multiple cases, including having people (strangers!) live with us. My heart aches for the children. And then I look at the families we were involved with who, though they were not only not educated (the parents), they were non-English speakers and refugees. Their kids made it.

    This will make me unpopular, but it is the truth as I have lived it for many years of my life. "Facts are stubborn things." All the reform in the world, all the software in the world, all the bells and whistles and high-speed Internet connections cannot automatically cause a person to value education. The most loving and dedicated teacher with just a pencil and paper cannot do much if the parents undo everything that has gone on during the day.

    This is not to point fingers and lay a blanket of blame/shame on some segment of the population in this education equation. But the truth must be told: many, many children come from poverty, yes, but more specifically, they come from poverty oriented cultures which do not value education.

    We need to help children see themselves as rich in spirit, so they don't define themselves by their economic situation. This may well be one of the greatest gifts my mother gave us: the awareness that poverty is a state of mind more than anything else. I never saw myself as in poverty, although the numbers ($$)and our circumstances pointed to it day in and day out. As an educator, I have tried to spread this message in any way I can, either directly or indirectly. Some want to hear it and others would prefer I get lost.

    As long as the reformers want to use technology and testing to address this problem, the stench in the mine will only be more toxic. Peter, you must be from coal country!

    1. Kobis, sadly, you hit the nail on the head in your second to last paragraph. It's on us. Sometimes it is just on us. And that is one of the saddest facts I have learned over my 29 year career this far.
      As you no doubt know, generational poverty is one of the worst institutions we fight. A long while back, an older colleague said to me as I was moaning about some kid, "Harriet, those parents are sending us the best they have. We just have to do the best we can with them. " The longer I taught, the longer I came to understand her truth. The kids are absolutely the best part that exists of most of the parents whose children we serve.
      I said all that to say this. I have come to believe that, yes, having supportive parents would be a tremendous asset; however, if that is not the case, I will do my best to show/tell/demonstrate to the child that there is power in education and there is way more to their world than the here and the now.
      If we wait on some parents, it just would not happen.

    2. This is the absolute truth. If we want education to be a means to reverse the trend of increasing poverty in this country, I can't help but conclude that the best way to support teachers is to hire more so that classrooms are much smaller and students can get a lot of one-on-one attention. We all do better with more personalized instruction and attention. Because I know that it is unlikely that parents (in these generational poverty situations) are going to become more engaged or supportive, any plan to improve the current situation needs to acknowledge this specific problem and find creative ways to address it. You and thousands of other teachers already do that to the very best of your abilities, but you need support. I would hope that efforts to reach out to parents (not necessarily from teachers, but the schools in general) would need to be approached in new ways as the old ways are apparently not working. Testing, pre-digested curriculum, standards, software and endless teacher evaluations are not going to help, either. In fact, they make the situation much worse. I know that I am stating the obvious.

      Many years ago my dear friend who is an ed. psych. professor conducted a fascinating study on the topic of how teachers deal with underachievers. She interviewed teachers in South Africa, the U.S., the U.K. and Russia. The results of her study will not surprise you: regardless of the socio-economic or political circumstances, all the teachers said essentially the same thing: teachers need to love their students, believe in them and work with them -- *where they are*. In doing so, the students who are not performing can heal, can find stability and can grow. It is a very inspiring work and I think about it often. It relates to Peter's essay about laziness, in a way.

      Every human being deserves kindness and support. I do not know why something so obvious and intuitive escapes all the "decision makers" and "power brokers" like Arnie and company. I guess they believe in numbers. I don't know.

    3. Kindness & support cannot be delivered or measured or bought in a nice tidy module. The implications that children need caring adults to guide them through the academic world escapes the vendors that control education. Their solution is access to tech. What is obvious to us is deliberately ignored because then the corporate model of education would have to humanize their dehumanizing bashing, insulting, deprofessionalizing public relations against the very people that would deliver the kindness & support.

    4. I grew up poor. So poor that my I remember Dad having a fistfight with the meter man when they came out to shut us off (again). But there was an understanding in our household. We were going to do well in school, academically and behaviorally. Some of my teachers were wonderful, some were evil incarnate. I was expected to learn from both. I wasn't a great student, being autistic with no supports, but I managed a B average and went on to graduate from a decent state school. After a variety of hit or miss careers I'm a SPED teacher in a high poverty middle school. I'm not a great teacher, but I keep trying to point out to my students that if my born poor, autistic fat self can have a successful career (haven't gotten fired in years), a lovely wife and two smart kids, then anyone can succeed. You just have to do what's asked, and treat your elders( current teachers and future bosses) with respect.

  3. Testing individual canaries breathing abilities is the animal rights issue of our time.

  4. I was just telling my husband that I enjoy your blog for its snarky tone and pitch perfect analogies. This is by far your BEST one ever.

  5. I can't agree with this metaphor, unless the profiteers, after having enlisted policy-makers to place a "hit" on the canary, are outside the cave congratulating themselves for having finally KILLED it, and are awaiting the masses to collectively emerge so they can be steered into the "safety" of their for-profit enterprises.

    That would work for me. :o/

  6. Yes, very snarky. I like your style.