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ETFO's Poverty and Education Symposium: What Teachers Can Do to Help All Students Succeed—and Why They Must

Johanna Brand
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It is well known that children from poor families are less likely to succeed academically. Moreover, the factors that contribute to their lack of success often lie outside the school. Nevertheless, according to Dr. Charles Ungerleider, there is much that teachers can do to improve the academic success of these students.

Furthermore, Dr. Ungerleider argues, failing to do so undermines public education because opponents use these students’ lack of success to indict the whole system.

"If public education fails our country will fail,” Ungerleider told those attending ETFO’s Poverty and Education Symposium. “Addressing the education of children living in poverty is pivotally important for them, for Canada, and for the survival of public schooling in Canada"

“If we do not ensure success for all students, members of the public who do not support public schooling will use those failures to erode support for public schools …They will strengthen their attempts to return schooling to the private privilege it once was – and is in some countries – instead of the public benefit it should be.”

Ungerleider noted that critics of public education highlight the experiences of the poor “to make their case for privatizing public schooling.”

Schools are limited in what they can do to address the impact of poverty, Ungerleider said, noting that less than 30 percent of the total variation in student achievement can be attributed to schooling. “But,” he added, “recognizing the limitations of schooling does not absolve us of our responsibility for both its successes and its failures.”

Teachers and schools “can’t have it both ways,” he argued. “We can’t claim success if we are unprepared to assume responsibility for failure.

“Nor can we in all honesty make claims that our professional knowledge and expertise should be properly recognized and remunerated if we don’t apply that knowledge and expertise in the service of educating students who face the most serious challenges … We must demand more of ourselves and promote the success of all students – especially those students living in poverty. They must be our first priority.” Ungerleider outlined specific steps that schools and school boards can take to enhance student success, as well as specific classroom strategies that teachers can employ.

What Schools Can Do

Here are some essential systemic elements in a strategy to improve students’ academic success:

  • Identify children at risk of poor performance upon entry to school.
    There are assessments teachers can make with just a few minutes spent with each student that will help identify such factors as limited vocabulary or poor visual or auditory processing.
  • Address the most vulnerable students immediately.
    Raising the performance of the students who perform least well will benefit everyone in the class by diminishing, in the long run, the amount of time and attention they will need.
  • Provide the additional assistance that vulnerable students need in the classroom.

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