OP-ED | by Rae Ann Knopf

Published in CT News Junkie Apr 6, 2012

It’s important to clarify a point made earlier this week by the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER). CCER understands and appreciates all of the challenges that poverty presents to our state’s educators.  We know that there are great teachers and great school leaders across the state who are tirelessly working to improve the lives of children in poverty, but the statistics tell us that we have to do more because we are not meeting the needs of all of our state’s children.  We appreciate everyone’s efforts, but we need to do more because we know that education is the key to career success and economic self-sufficiency.

If you are looking for evidence to show the effects of poverty can be overcome by good teaching, it is not hard to find. There are reams of data to show a difference can be made in the achievement levels of children who start out behind because they live in poverty.  Teachers play the central role in accomplishing this.

This is why we started this work, to put into practice ways to help teachers and principals to accomplish this on a more regular basis. For the more than 1 in 5 Connecticut students who don’t graduate high school or the 2 in 5 who don’t if they live in poverty; continuing these efforts is essential. For the rest of us, failure to change this equation creates dramatic consequences for our state. Students who drop out of high school in Connecticut can expect to make an average of $19,000 a year during their most productive years – between the ages of 25 and 34, and cost the state $518,000 in lost revenues and expenses. These statistics can be changed. I know they can because I have lived them.

As a first generation college student, I know what it is like to depend on others for help to survive. I know what it is like to be a child who lives in poverty and I know that it didn’t make me dirty, or inept, and it certainly didn’t mean that my parents didn’t care. These were comments I heard on this issue at education town hall meetings I attended in recent weeks across the state.

As a grandchild of Native Americans, I know how poverty and being minority in this country can have an effect for generations to come. When my grandparents were children in the early 1900’s, there were still states in America where they were worth more dead, than alive.

But I also know poverty does not have to be permanent. While my parents struggled to provide for our basic needs, it was my teachers and one outstanding principal who saw to it that I entered college.

Education reform is about the power of learning to change the stars of our most disadvantaged children. We have the resources in this country to ensure that all children have access to great teachers and principals in their schools, to ensure that poverty becomes a small part of their lives, not their entire life.

It is because of my life experiences that I have a passion for and an understanding of the ways in which effective and caring teachers can change the direction of children who live in poverty.

We all have our own stories. Rich or poor, business leaders, public servants, educators, and the person behind the counter at your local deli, all have their own story. They often belie the stereotypes we rely on daily to make judgments about them and their work. When reinforced in public discourse, these beliefs do us a tremendous disservice by providing excuses that prevent us from learning about the issues for ourselves and making our own independent judgments.

The current dialogue on teaching is a great example. Teaching may be the single most important profession of our time. Without great teachers there would be no engineers, doctors, business leaders, or other teachers. This profession spends more time imprinting future citizens of America, than any other adults, save parents.

For many years, I was involved in educating students with a wide range of needs and difficulties. In that vein, I had the pleasure of working with truly great teachers. In every case, what they needed to help children with diverse learning needs such as many of those who live in poverty, to succeed, was more time, personalized instruction, emphasis on reading and vocabulary, the ability to monitor progress, family involvement, and to start as early as possible. There are countless studies that show this works.

In a perfect world, one might hope this would occur naturally. Because we don’t live in a perfect world, we must find ways to structurally support and compel these practices, so they occur in every school – not just a fortunate few.

Governor Malloy’s plan had many of these components. It replaced disconnected systems of educator preparation, certification, evaluation, improvement, compensation, and tenure with interconnected approaches to these critical components of a developing education professional. It replaced a disjointed model for intervening with lowest performing schools, currently fraught with bureaucracy and delays, with a streamlined approach that requires all education public servants to be accountable. While not perfect, these are bold first steps that will benefit from using the remainder of the legislative session to refine rather than dismantle them.

It’s time we stopped talking about who is right, and focus attentions on doing what is right. Restore the essential policies that will help Connecticut educators change the stars of our most disadvantaged children today. They cannot wait another year.