In 2015, Business Insider published a report from the Brookings Institute highlighting the 15 cities where poverty is growing fastest in the nation. Greensboro-High Point tied for 10th, Winston-Salem tied for 8th, and Raleigh tied for 3rd…with Charlotte. In 2016, the Washington Post published a study by the Southern Education Foundation that found an incredibly high number of students in public schools live in poverty. And in April of 2016, the journal Nature Neuroscience published a study that linked poverty to brain structure. All three publications confirm what educators have known for years: poverty is the biggest obstacle in public education.
And here in 2018, over 1 in 5 students in public schools lives in poverty.
Yet many “reformers” and NC legislators want you to believe that bad teachers are at the root of what hurts our public schools. In the fall of 2014, Haley Edwards in Time Magazine published an article entitled “Rotten Apples” which suggested that corporate America and its business approaches (Bill Gates, etc.) can remedy our failing public schools by targeting and removing the “rotten apples” (bad teachers) and implementing impersonal corporate practices.
I understand the analogy: bad teachers, rotten apples. However, it is flawed. Removing rotten apples does not restore the orchard. Rather, improving the orchard makes for better apples. Teachers are more like farmers, not apples. Students are what are nurtured. What we need to do is improve the conditions in which schools operate and the environments in which our students are raised; we must address elements that contribute to poverty.
North Carolinians know agriculture. We understand that any crop requires an optimum environment to produce the best harvest. Farmers must consider weather, resources, and time to work with the land. Since many factors which affect the harvest are beyond their control, farmers make the best of what they have; they must marry discipline with a craft. Teachers do the same.
But if the environment suffers and resources are limited, then agriculture suffers. Is that the fault of farmers? If variables surrounding the environment of public education are constantly being changed by governing bodies, then are teachers at fault?
Another fallacy with the rotten apple analogy is that the end product (singular test scores) is a total reflection of the teacher. Just like with farming, much is out of the hands of the education system. One in five children in North Carolina lives in poverty and many more have other pressing needs that affect the ability to learn. Some students come to school just to be safe and have a meal. But imagine if students came to school physically, emotionally, and mentally prepared to learn.
The soil in which the public school system is rooted has been altered so much in the past decade that the orchard where teachers “grow” their crops has been stripped of much of its vitality. Look at the number of standardized tests, curriculum models, and teacher evaluation protocols thrown at public schools.
We are treating the symptoms, not the malady. We are trying to put a shine on the apples by “raising” graduation rates with new grading scales. It is analogous to constructing a new white picket fence around an orchard and thinking that the crop will automatically improve.
But our elected officials can help or at least remove the obstacles for those who can.
The General Assembly can invest more in pre-K programs. They can stop funding for-profit charter and corporate-run virtual schools. They can expand Medicaid so more kids come to school healthy. They can fully re-institute the Teaching Fellows program in its original form to keep our bright future teachers here in North Carolina. They can restore career status, due-process, and graduate degree raises for newer teachers. Then they can give decent raises to veteran teachers so they finish their careers here.
Our public school teachers and administrators are not looking for a profit to gain; they already see the value in each and every student.
Imagine them apples.