Barriers To Learning


Inside the classroom, the teacher has the greatest impact on student performance. It is also true that parents are the most influential teacher in a child’s life, and learning that doesn’t occur outside the classroom can have a much greater impact on student achievement, than what transpires inside the classroom…

“Decades of research have shown the staggering societal costs of children in poverty. They grow up with less education and lower earning power. They are more likely to have drug addiction, psychological trauma and disease, or wind up in prison… 

Dasani’s circumstances are largely the outcome of parental dysfunction. While nearly one-third of New York’s homeless children are supported by a working adult, her mother and father are unemployed, have a history of arrests and are battling drug addiction….

For children like Dasani, school is not just a place to cultivate a hungry mind. It is a refuge. The right school can provide routine, nourishment and the guiding hand of responsible adults…

To eat, the children sit on the cracked linoleum floor, which never feels clean no matter how much they mop. Homework is a challenge. The shelter’s one recreation room can hardly accommodate Auburn’s hundreds of children, leaving Dasani and her siblings to study, hunched over, on their mattresses… 

The projects may represent all kinds of inertia. But to live at Auburn is to admit the ultimate failure: the inability of one’s parents to meet that most basic need… 

For all of McKinney’s pluck, its burdens are great. In the last six years, the city has cut the school’s budget by a quarter as its population declined. Fewer teachers share a greater load. After-school resources have thinned, but not the needs of students whose families are torn apart by gun violence and drug use. McKinney’s staff psychologist shuttles between three schools like a firefighter. 

And now, a charter school is angling to move in. If successful, it will eventually claim McKinney’s treasured top floor, home to its theater class, dance studio and art lab. Teachers and parents are bracing for battle, announced by fliers warning against the “apartheid” effects of a charter co-location. 

Dasani knows about charter schools. Her former school, P.S. 67, shared space with one. She never spoke to those children, whose classrooms were stocked with new computers. Dasani’s own school was failing by the time she left… 

Miss Holmes has seen plenty of distressed children, but few have both the depth of Dasani’s troubles and the height of her promise. There is not much Miss Holmes can do about life outside school. She knows this is a child who needs a sponsor, who “needs to see ‘The Nutcracker,’” who needs her own computer. There are many such children.

Here at school, Miss Holmes must work with what she has…”

Andrea Elliott, “Invisible Child – Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life” NY Times, 12/9/13

Poorer communities and schools would see a much greater academic return on their “investments” if instead of purchasing new computers, software solutions, and standardized tests, they properly funded programs such as; prenatal care, child care, adult ed, parenting classes, job coaching, drug counseling, health services, morning programs, and after school programs that provide meals, tutoring, arts and crafts, physical activity, and a quiet place to study.

It is naive to expect that students who have weaker academic skills, greater social and emotional needs, and attend chronically underfunded schools will start to achieve more in the classroom, simply because their state has adopted the Common Core State Standards, their schools have purchased computers to administer mandated standardized tests, and their teachers have received high quality Common Core professional development.

There is more likely to be an increase in the achievement gap and school drop out rates, rather than an increase in college and career readiness, if we continue to place greater academic demands on students with greater needs, without providing sufficient school funding to support essential wrap around services.


Colleges should be ready for diverse learners


Wag the dog education policies focus on the “needs” of the test rather than the students. Children in wag the dog schools spend a majority of class time training to take tests rather than learning by creating and testing things.

When it comes to America’s college readiness “problem”, it does not appear Common Core enthusiasts have followed their own Standards that demand students “demonstrate understanding of multiple perspectives through reflection”. 

Ed reformers should rethink their misguided “tail wagging the dog” approach to college readiness, and consider the possibility that the problem is not with students who aren’t ready for college but colleges that aren’t ready for diverse learners.

Ed reformers have made the critical, perhaps deliberate, mistake of taking data points like the inflated and distorted college remediation rates and equating them with evidence of a K-12 education “crisis” that can only be solved through the Common Core standardized education and testing program.

Many reformers have concluded that disrupting K-12 education programs and prescribing a regimen of higher standards and harder tests will cure our student “readiness” problem, which very often is a symptom of America’s poverty problem.

Won’t be long before taxpayers start challenging local wag the dog school policies and decisions to eliminate teachers, librarians, field trips, art and athletic programs, while reducing funding for essential wrap around services in order to pay for software solutions, test prep materials, and new computers to prepare students for the new and improved college and career readiness tests.

The effects of poverty on student learning and achievement are real and significant. More and more students are beginning their formal schooling developmentally and cognitively delayed by as much as 2 or more grade levels.

Highly effective administrators, educators, and support staff collaborate in K-12 education programs across the country to help struggling students “close the gap” but these efforts may not be enough to fully compensate for the lack of learning that takes place after hours and outside the classroom.

For decades successful schools have come up with individualized and student-centered approaches to meet our students academic, social, and emotional needs rather than standardized approaches that are focused primarily on meeting the “needs” of the standards and tests.

Saturday school, tutors, mentors, stretching a class over 3 semesters, resource room, academic interventions, RTI, counselors, school breakfast, morning programs, after school programs, CROP, Title I etc. are all examples of effective programs and interventions designed to support developmentally delayed and learning disabled students.

With these critical supports and wrap around services, many of our students make great academic strides and are able to narrow their cognitive and skills gap considerably by graduation.

Ed reformers obsession and fixation on “college readiness” suggests that they believe ( or want parents to believe) that the acquisition and development of math, reading, writing, and critical thinking skills is limited to the years or “window” of K-12 education. 

In fact, many of us continued learning long after we graduated high school. Our math, reading, and writing skills continued to strengthen and in many cases we “caught up” with, and even surpassed, the skills of some of our classmates who may have out performed and outpaced us in school.

For most of us today our success on the job has had very little to do with data points such as our reading level in 4th grade or math proficiency in 6th grade. We are successful employees today because we continue to adapt to changing job requirements and are always willing to learn new skills.

The qualities and skills that make us valuable employees include; creative problem solvers, attentive listeners, good decision makers, we can teach others, learn from others, follow directions, take initiative, good public speakers,  honest, passionate, flexible, self-reliant, persistent, resilient, etc…

Ironically, many of our students will actually be less prepared for the real “tests” in life and the diverse challenges of college and careers precisely because the Common Core focuses on testing a very narrow and shallow academic skill set rather than cultivating an expansive and robust set of academic, social, and emotional skills that will enable and empower our students to be life-long learners and leaders, just like ourselves.

College programs should follow the lead of K-12 programs and continue providing essential learning supports and services. They should welcome diverse learners and adjust their course billing policies, or modify their entry level course offerings to meet the individual needs of students.

To claim there is an education crisis in America because students who may have started schooling as much as 2 or 3 grade levels behind and are now several college remedial courses away from being “ready” is….MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.

Drawing by Linda Silvestri