The Education Solution: Is it Really the Teacher’s Fault?



While taking pictures at North Columbus Elementary, a school with mostly middle-class kids that are not at the poverty level, I noticed that it had something else in common with the world's highest ranked school system, Finland, a relaxed atmosphere. And the students perform well in 4th grade reading, with 92% passing the state's standardized reading test, which is higher than both the state average of 87%, and the MCSD average of 82 %. It scores lower in math, with a 74% passing rate, which ties with the state average. South Columbus Elementary School, which has a high percentage of children who live in poverty, has a 4th grade reading passing rate of 55%, and a 4th grade math passing rate of 33%.


A lot of my teacher friends are getting hot and bothered by teachers being blamed for the country’s allegedly poor education performance.  I use the word “allegedly” because some claim the rankings are unfair. 

For instance, they say it is unfair to compare the Finland system, which is ranked number one in the world at this time, with ours because Finland doesn’t have a diverse population, few students are not native speakers.  And Finland has almost no children living in poverty. 

Not only does the United States have great diversity, it also has the highest poverty level of any of the world’s rich nations.  If it is agreed that Mexico is a rich country, it would edge out the United States for number one.  

According to a UNICEF study, the child poverty rate in Finland in 2005 was 2.8 percent. The United States child poverty rate is 21.9 percent. And, yes indeed, a child raised in poverty is far more likely to perform poorly than one raised in affluence.

Now, if you live in a place like my home town, Columbus, Georgia, the poverty problem is much larger than the national average.  This is often true in urban areas. Overall, schools in suburban districts  score better on standardized tests.

In the Muscogee County School District sixty-five percent of the students come from families who live in poverty, based on how many qualify for free and reduce-priced lunches.  The rate in some schools goes as high as 95 percent. I asked Muscogee County School District Superintendent Susan Andrews to explain the extent of the poverty problem and how the MCSD is coping with it.  This is what she told me.

“Sixty-five percent of our students receive free and/or reduced price lunch.  Many other children are on the borderline of this poverty line.  Generational poverty is a persistent problem and a formidable foe.  In order to work on the issue and ensure that children who live in poverty receive a quality education, we begin by serving as many students as the State will provide us slots in the prekindergarten program and by partnering with programs such as Head Start.  Early childhood education is a key in developing children’s vocabulary at an early age.  Children who live in poverty have significantly smaller vocabularies than students from middle class families.  The gap in achievement between students from poverty and other students is present when students enter our doors.  Schools with high levels of poverty are provided more support in the form of personnel (family service coordinators, more assistant principals, more academic coaches) than schools without a high level of poverty.  The purpose of the federal ESEA is to provide funding for additional support for schools with high poverty so these schools (we refer to them as Title I eligible schools) receive additional funds for supplies, equipment, and professional development.  This funding cannot supplant other local and state funding but must supplement the local and state funding.

“Our Partners in Education program, as well as other community involvement projects, assist our students who live in poverty to have the opportunities and mentoring they need.  Columbus Scholars is another program designed to reach out to students who need additional support.” 

But, you may say, there are children who start out in poverty, but do quite well,  ending up with college educations, thanks to the work of excellent, dedicated, caring teachers. I believe that is true.  But, there are those who say reports about that can be misleading. We’ll look at that in a future post in our The Education Solution  series.

If you would like to find out how a school performs anywhere in the United States,  just click on this link to NBC’s Education Nation Scorecard.   


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8 Responses to “The Education Solution: Is it Really the Teacher’s Fault?”

  1. Judson Patten Says:

    I felt so sorry for the students and teachers at Marshall Middle School over the years as they were being tested and continually called a “failing school.” Then they would be compared with Richards Middle School and Arnold Middle School and the only difference was the address of the schools and the part of town the children came from. I always thought it was so unfair to label a whole school as “failing” because of test scores. I fully believe that you could have switched the teachers from Richards with the teachers at Marshall and the outcome would have been exactly the same. Georgia gives all students the same test and that includes the children in Special Education classes. Yet there are some states that do not test the Special Education students along with the rest and that makes Georgia show up as further down in the comparisons. Every thing that can be done to better prepare students for school is important. You mentioned pre-kindergarten classes and I believe that program is taking a tremendous hit with Governor Deal’s budget. I’ve been involved with education in Columbus for over 40 years and the teachers have always been working their hearts out for the children of Columbus. Of course, there are going to be some that don’t go quite as far as others but the teachers give their all for the students and will do everything within their power to do all that the students will allow them to do to better their education. Public school is the way. When you take the students out of public school and put them in private school – you are also hurting the public school by removing many of the students that would help with raising the test scores in each school. Kids are worth the money that it takes to provide the best education that can be provided. Cutting five days out of the school year for students – that’s a whole week of school – was insane. And that was to save money.

    • dicksworld Says:

      Judson, I hope you don’t mind, but this comment is so comprehensive and raises so many important issues that Ia m going to also run it as a post. Thanks for taking the time to send this.

  2. Ron Ussery Says:

    It is never fair to teachers to compare the scores of their students on standardized tests. It is sometimes useful and always tempting, however. It is not even fair to use student scores from one cohort to the next within the same population. Too many variables. I don’t know any educator who would suggest such a thing as a measure of teacher effectiveness.

    We don’t need more soundbite, knee-jerk answers to complex questions. We have FOX News for that. Sorry, Dick, but I find the question ridiculous. (Except to work up the ire of educators and taxpayers alike, which I suspect is why you pose it.)

    Are teachers to blame? Of course they are, along with parents, administrators, state and federal legislators, the Tea Party, the kids themselves, and society at large. Did you see that a Florida legislator has proposed a bill requiring that state’s public school teachers to provide a grade to parents? An interesting idea, but again an imperfect one. I know siblings who would garner opposite bookend grades for their parents.

    What we do need are adequate funding and accountability. And both of those issues are extremely complex in themselves.

    • dicksworld Says:

      Standardized tests do have their problems. However, how else can student achievement levels comparisons be made?

      I don’t consider this post a soundbite approach. The quote by Dr. Andrews is certainly no soundbite, and I should know because I had to try to become skilled at using soundbites, some as short as a few seconds, in TV news reports.

      I don’t agree that the question is ridiculous. The question in the title, if that’s the one to which you are referring is not an indictment of teachers, but simply an introduction to the debate of the topic. I don’t say teachers are the problem. Most of the post deals with the huge problem of poverty.

      Your concern about parental involvement is certainly justified and I will doa future post on that and welcome your input.

      I totally agree with your last paragraph’s assertions. Also, I agree that the issue is complex, which is why I am doing a series on education reform instead of just a couple of posts. Thanks for taking the time to comment and please feel free to give me your input in the future. I value it.

  3. Jim Pickens Says:

    So WHY do kids from poverty do worse then the affluent or middle class kids?
    How does poverty affect learning? I know that it does, your blog and other articles I have read for the last 40 years have all said this, but WHY?
    I understand that if a child is hungry but breakfast and lunch are provided at little or no cost as you have stated.
    Muscogee County School District Superintendent Susan Andrews stated “Children who live in poverty have significantly smaller vocabularies than students from middle class families.” This is the only why I read in your blog.
    My father had a 3rd grade education, I graduated from a local high school and I am a licensed tradesman, my oldest son is in college and excelling.
    I thought that is how it works in America.

    • dicksworld Says:

      My best understanding is that small children learn mostly by example, the way parents speak and act. For instance, if a parent has a small vocabulary so will the child until he or she is exposed to people with larger ones. There are always exceptioins so not all people who live in poverty have small vocabularies, but the evidence is that most do.

      Each generation doing better educationally and in other ways is how it works for a lot of Americans, but for too many that doesn’t happen. They caugh trapped in an unfortunate cycle.

      Thanks for your comment, Jim, and please feel free to do it more.

  4. Ken Champion Says:

    This is the most well-written article of the series! Excellent supporting stats and a teaser for the next article.

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