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Guest Opinion: If you want students to succeed, address poverty

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As a teacher of 12 years, I know the challenges facing public education firsthand. I also know wrong answers when I see them, and the Sept. 26 opinion by Representatives Sondra Erickson and Ron Kresha doesn’t make the grade. By focusing on the Minnesota Department of Education, they are looking for a simple answer pointing to a singular agency instead of understanding the deep underlying problems in student achievement.

I consider myself to be a pretty good teacher, so if Representatives Erickson and Kresha want to learn the real reasons why schools in communities of poverty are struggling and bringing down state test scores, I’d be happy to teach them.

The single greatest predictor of a school’s test scores is poverty. Scores from around the state show this to be true, and the differences can be drastic. In areas where fewer than 6% of the population lives in poverty, students rate at around 80% proficiency in reading and math. But where more than 25% live in pervasive poverty, roughly 20% demonstrate proficiency in reading, and math scores frequently fall below that.

Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education under President Bush and former champion of the No Child Left Behind law, agrees. After carefully studying this data, she came to the realization that she had been wrong to reward high-scoring schools and punish low-scoring ones. When poverty determines the scores, withholding resources only makes the problem worse. Ravitch cites the decades of increasing student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as evidence that schools are highly successful, but reminds us that poverty is one of the largest driving forces that determines a student’s success.

In the largest study ever conducted on poverty and brain development in children, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) documented the lifelong damage to physical and mental health caused by the stresses of poverty, such as noise, household chaos, family conflict, hunger, and sickness. Poverty-related stress manifests early in infancy leading to cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes in children. These changes happen quickly and cause permanent damage to brain development.

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Blaming the Minnesota Department of Education for student underachievement, as Erickson and Kresha do, ignores the elephant in the room: poverty. Quick-fix answers for overhauling a single state agency actually wastes time and resources while avoiding the clear problem. Anti-poverty measures -- statewide Pre-K, expanded access to SNAP benefits for families, a universal Minnesota Healthcare plan -- would all do more to improve student test scores than overhauling a state agency could ever hope to.

The Minnesota Department of Education hasn’t failed our students -- political leaders looking to score cheap points instead of addressing systemic poverty have let them down.

Stephen Browning lives in Little Falls and teaches at Talahi Community School in St. Cloud.

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