J. Peder Zane is a conservative columnist for Raleigh’s News & Observer who can almost always be counted on to produce maddening takes on a wide array of issues. Last Friday, however, Zane did something quite refreshing and praiseworthy: he wrote a column about the central problem confronting our public schools that was right on the money.
In “Instead of ‘fixing’ public schools, address poverty,” Zane shined a light on the issue that is clearly the elephant in the room in the debate over public education: poverty. This is from the column:
“Our public schools are not broken. They graduate thousands of capable and curious children each year, many of whom continue their studies at America’s colleges and universities, which are the envy of the world….
Our schools only appear broken because of the many children who bring a wide array of often heartbreaking problems to school – problems that make it hard for them to take advantage of the opportunities available to all.
If we have any hope of fixing our schools for them, we need to shift our focus from significant but secondary issues, including teacher pay and racial equity, to the deeper issues at work.”
“Essentially, these stressful ACEs trigger the body’s natural flight or fight response, including release of the hormone cortisol. This can be helpful when confronting short term threats. But children (and adults) living with incessant disruptions, she writes, suffer ‘toxic stress,’ which makes it hard for them to sit still and follow rules while also making people more vulnerable to a host of health problems, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
The science, [Harris] writes, is predictive. ‘If a patient had four or more ACEs, she was 32 times more likely to have learning or behavior problems … the life expectancy of individuals with ACE scores of six or more is 20 years shorter than it is for people with no ACEs.’
About 24 percent of North Carolina’s children 17 and younger have an ACE score of at least two, according to the 2011 National Survey of Children’s Health. No doubt many of them are being raised by parents whose ACE scores are even higher.
An honest discussion of education needs to recognize this obvious but often neglected fact – a child’s home life has more impact on their educational achievement than their schooling.”
Zane’s essay is not perfect. He overstates the hopelessness of the situation in some respects — we know that good teachers and schools with adequate resources and early interventions can make a big difference, even for very poor children — but he’s right that we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can solve this huge problem without dealing with poverty and the horrific traumas it inflicts on children. For his next act, let’s hope Zane takes another step toward the light by calling out his fellow conservative travelers for their brutal blitzkrieg on the public safety net that has done so much to worsen poverty — both here in North Carolina and across the nation.