Kentucky Wesleyan Education Professor Calls for Compassion in Education

Education needs compassion more than standards

By James Alexander In My View | Posted: Wednesday, January 21, 2015 12:00 am

In the American Buddhist classic, “Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (1995),” Sharon Salzberg introduced the idea of metta meditation. The meditator wishes that all beings might be free from danger, have mental happiness, physical happiness and ease of wellbeing.

Don’t we want the same for our children? We want them to be safe, happy, healthy and well. This is the task of parenting. This is the task of education. Still, things don’t always work out the best for children. Families can be dysfunctional, and education may falter. Many have noted that our education system is failing many of its young charges. Many have called for action to be taken.

The objective here is to discuss one part of the puzzle of achievement in schools: poverty. The Poverty and Race Research Action Council states, 
”(T)here is no question that school poverty concentration has a detrimental impact on student achievement.”

The Washington Post leaves no doubt: 85 percent of low-income students attending high-poverty schools don’t read proficiently by the time they begin fourth grade.

At least 35 states are providing less per-pupil funding than they did before the beginning of the recession (2008). Even where funding has increased, it does not offset cuts from previous years. As a case in point, New Mexico increased per-pupil school funding by $72 for the 2013-14 school year, but that does not begin to offset the previous cuts over the previous five years, totaling $946 per pupil.

Though this situation is devastating to inner-city high schools attempting to fulfill the mandate of making sure every student is college or career ready, it is perhaps funding at the other end of the public education spectrum that is of even greater concern. In 2013, funding for Head Start was cut by $400 million, denying access to the program to about 60,000 students. This cut represents the largest hit in funding since the program began in 1965.

This is concerning for many reasons. The “educational” benefits of Head Start are well documented. The National Head Start Association documents how Head Start is an equalizer, bringing the educational attainment level of participants in a range similar to other children. There are health and economic benefits. Also, children who participate in Head Start are less likely to have been charged with a crime than their siblings who were not enrolled in Head Start.

Numerous studies have indicated that low student achievement is closely correlated with lack of resources, and, more directly, many studies have indicated the close correlation between low socioeconomic status and low achievement. In 2013, there were more than 45 million Americans living in poverty. Nearly 20 percent of children under the age of 18 were living in poverty. The majority of these children come from working families. Disproportionately they are black and Latino. These children not only have less family income, they are less healthy, fall behind in intellectual and emotional development, are less likely to finish high school and often go on to become poor parents themselves.

Yet, even though the effects of poverty on children and the impact that it has on educational attainment are well documented, monies from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the block grant program given to states by the federal government to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), has declined 30 percent in real value since 1996. This, combined with reduced funding for K-12 education and compensatory programs such as Head Start, has had a devastating impact on addressing educational attainment issues in low-income families and communities and in the larger society.

There are many aspects of poverty that are more attitudinal/dispositional in nature. Ruby Payne (2005) has described many of these in detail in her book, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty.” Many of these factors can be seen as they are reflected in the environment of those living in poverty. This, indeed, may be at the root of poverty effects in school — a type of learned helplessness.

Yet, funding continues for the creation of more ambitious standards and higher teacher accountability. To me it seems many are seeking a scapegoat on which to pin the blame for the failure of society to take care of the poorest among us. Much more than new standards and value added schemes to force “these lazy teachers” to do their jobs, what is needed is a massive influx of compassion. This needs to equate to dollars. We seem to have our values backwards. We need compassion more than standards. Funding needs to go to health care, homelessness, food insecurity, substandard housing, reducing crime in blighted neighborhoods and, most important, lending hope to the hopeless.

Indeed, may our children be free from danger; may they have mental happiness, may they have physical happiness, and may they have ease of wellbeing. Isn’t that what all folks want? Isn’t that what all folks need? Isn’t acting to give these things to our children the very deed that makes us all truly human?

James Alexander is a professor of elementary education at Kentucky Wesleyan College.