Sponsor a child

To help teachers, support parents

Many American schools are failing to provide all students with a quality education, and policymakers don’t seem to know what to do about it. Even before schools closed during the pandemic, 30% of senior graduates failed to achieve a basic proficiency level in reading, and 40% failed to do so in math, according to national data. Performance gaps by race and socioeconomic status both topics have persisted to some extent for decades. Meanwhile, teachers are among the most stressed workers in America, and while concerns about the mass departure of educators have yet to materialize, the number of young people entering the profession decreased for years.

Over the past two decades, government officials have made various attempts to improve the state of American education –step up standardized testing, expansion of charter schoolsand urging States to adopt consistent benchmarks for student achievement– in vain. It’s perhaps understandable that these efforts have focused primarily on what happens in the hallways of America’s K-12 public schools. But less attention has been paid to another profound influence on our education system: our nation’s family policy. My reporting suggests that many things that help children succeed in school have roots outside of school, and if America wants to help teachers, it will have to better support parents.

The United States is a tough place to raise a child. Paid vacation and affordable daycare, benefits common to many of our peer countries, are not guaranteed. Supports available, such as in the form of tax credits Where family and medical leave (unpaid) with job protection, sometimes exclude the poorest citizens. Many supports aimed specifically at families in need can be very difficult to access or come with terms of employment— great demand in a country with little infrastructure to support working parents. Not only do these conditions unnecessarily complicate the lives of caregivers; they also jeopardize the whole project of teaching American children.

A child’s education begins at birth, Dana Suskind, founder and co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health at the University of Chicago and author of mother nation, said. The majority of physical brain development occurs in the first years of life, before most children enter a classroom. This is a delicate period, when children are both particularly vulnerable to stress and well prepared to gain cognitive ground. Parents play a major role during this stage as the “first and most important architects of children’s brains,” Suskind said. Engaging children in rich interactions – listening to what interests them, talking to them and reading to them, and letting them “respond” – helps stimulate and strengthen the neural connections that build brain power and build the foundation of learning. Many parents, like those who don’t have paid vacations or have arduous work schedules, have fewer opportunities to devote such attention to their children. Wealthier families can outsource the work to professionals, but as the country grapples with a massive shortage of childcare staff, more parents and children are left alone.

When children do not receive early support, their ability to learn suffers. According to Suskind, the nurturing back and forth between caregiver and child is linked to success in literacy, math, spatial reasoning, and self-regulation, all of which are essential for academic success. Without sufficient commitment, children risk entering school already late. By an estimation as of the 2017-2018 school year, half of U.S. children ages 3 to 5 are not “on track” in at least one area of ​​academic readiness, such as math and expressive language, or development emotional and behavior management. “Asking teachers to try to make up the difference…is basically impossible,” Suskind said. Policymakers often point to universal pre-kindergarten as a potential solution, but while it can certainly help, it doesn’t start soon enough. From the age of nine months, low-income children score lower on cognitive development tests than their wealthier peers, and the disparity widens as they enter infancy.

The problems can start in infancy, but the pressure on American parents can continue to create problems once children start school. As caregivers, parents are called upon to do a lot to support their children’s education: dropping them off and picking them up, buying supplies, attending meetings with teachers, managing extracurricular and sports logistics, helping homework. And if a child has a health-related learning difficulty, such as a sight or hearing impairment or a developmental disability, parents are responsible for making and accompanying appointments and sometimes even to implement the strategies learned in therapy at home. This high level of involvement in a child’s education is a powerful predictor of academic achievement, but it is very difficult for many to undertake. “If you’re not able to schedule your work schedule or take time off work to do these kinds of things, it destroys” your ability to be so engaged, Jennifer Lansford, director of the Center for Politics Childhood and Family at Duke University, told me.

For low-income parents, the challenges can be more extreme. Children cannot learn effectively when their basic needs (food, shelter, sleep, security) are not met. Stress at home can lead to misbehavior in the classroom and cycles of learning disruption, Lindsay Popilskis, a psychologist at Clarkstown Central School District in New York, told me. When children take action, they miss class time, fall behind and become frustrated. “So they’re acting again,” Popilskis said. Although teachers employ a variety of strategies to manage disruption in the classroom, some successthey can’t do much if they can’t get to the root of the problem.

Suzanne Langlois, who has spent the past 17 years teaching at a public high school in a wealthy Maine neighborhood, is confident that the resources of her students’ families make her job easier. She told me she rarely saw the behavioral issues she was used to when she worked in a neighborhood with much higher levels of poverty. She finds it much easier to hire teenagers who aren’t distracted by concerns about their family’s health or jobs. Having grown up with so much support, her current students are generally more confident learners. They still have problems, like all children, but these tend to be less urgent and easier for her to solve. “It’s amazing how much I’m learning to teach,” Langlois told me. “When I was in [my previous district], I always had the impression that I had so many children who had needs and I didn’t meet any of them. It was horrible. Now, with fewer children in crisis, she has the bandwidth to contact anyone going through a difficult time. “I feel more efficient. And it brings more energy to teaching.

Schools can be a lifeline and a refuge, especially for those with difficult family lives. “Right now we are and have been the unrecognized social safety net for America,” Theo Moriarty, a teacher in Seattle, told me. Schools not only provide food, care, and vaccines, but also connect families with various community supports, or help them navigate the labyrinthine process to get Medicaid, housing, and other services. But that’s a lot of responsibility to put on a single institution. And ultimately, a child’s ability to do well in the classroom is heavily influenced by the level of support they receive at home. Addressing the forces holding back American education is not possible without helping American families. Leaving schools to play catch-up is unfair to teachers and parents.


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