THE BLOG
05/10/2013 11:17 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

Education's Elephant in the Room: Poverty

For the last decade, New York City has been immersed in a debate about how to improve our failing schools. It is a critical discussion that has been derailed by small ideas and counterproductive divisions. School closings and co-locations have pitted parents against administrators. A focus on standardized testing has narrowed the skills that students learn in the classroom. A habit of demonizing teachers instead of training them has demoralized our workforce.

While significant progress has been made to improve accountability, student performance is still abysmal. According to the Department of Education, just 29% of our high school students are prepared to do college-level work. That number is significantly lower at schools in low-income neighborhoods. The picture is not any prettier for elementary students. Last week, the DOE released an report showing that 4.4% of students in 3rd grade last year - about 2,200 kids in total - had to repeat the grade this year.

There is widespread agreement that we need universal pre-K and end high-stakes testing, but neither the UFT nor the Department of Education are focused on addressing the root cause of our failing schools: poverty.

During my eleven years as a New York City public school teacher, I saw firsthand the impact that poverty has on the classroom. In low-income neighborhoods like Sunset Park, where I taught, students as young as five years old enter school affected by the stresses often created by poverty: domestic violence, drug abuse, gang activity.

By four years of age, the average child in a family receiving public assistance has heard about 13 million words, compared to 45 million for a child from a wealthier family. The disadvantages developed during their first four years are usually still present in high school. Even the best parents have to spend so much time making ends meet that they cannot help their kids with homework or afford the extra tutoring that wealthier students enjoy. To address these unjust disparities, we need an early education revolution.

There are programs across the country providing examples of how that can be done. Dubbed "early intervention" programs, they are uniting parents, educators, medical professionals, and community members behind a common mission: to ensure that every child has the support they need to succeed from the day they are born.

As Mayor, I plan to usher in a new era of early education. I will launch the city's first pediatric wellness centers to engage students from age 0-3, a pivotal age for developing basic learning skills. From parenting workshops to nutrition programs and pro-bono medical and dental care, these centers will provide access to essential services that infants and toddlers need to thrive. Teachers will work directly with parents to ensure that every kid is ready to enter pre-K and Kindergarten.

As education takes center-stage during this year's Mayoral race, we cannot afford to be distracted by platitudes or to mistake gimmicks for innovation. Pediatric wellness centers and a real plan to address poverty must be at the very top of the agenda. Given what we know now, anything less would be political malpractice.