Teachers and Tutors Can't Fix All of Low-Income Students' Problems

Jun 13, 2014Casey McQuillan

Targeted public policy could help with many of the problems students face that their teachers can't solve alone.

My parents, both teachers, often blurred the line between being parents and being educators. Luckily, I found academics to be second nature. As a result, my teachers in the local public school system served as valuable role models and fostered my personal growth not just as a student, but as a whole person. I always felt supported by my community and equipped with the necessary tools for my success.

I faced a stark contrast to my own experience when I worked with Achieve, a program that offers tuition-free educational enrichment to impoverished students in Boston. I taught critical math skills and literacy comprehension for eight weeks during the summer, and volunteered on Saturdays during the school year. Over the three years I spent with Achieve, I developed intimate and meaningful relationships with my students; but I felt that my impact, even the impact of the entire program, was severely limited.

These students did not have the same tools I did to succeed in the classroom. As a teacher, it was excruciatingly painful to hear a student who is already falling behind explain he could not do his homework because his mom could not pay the bills and the electric company shut off the power. It kills me to tell a student to take notes in class only to find out later that her parents can't afford the prescription glasses she needs to see the board and take those notes. I was expecting these kids to read when some of them could not even see.

Our government claims each citizen maintains the right to an education, but fails to substantiate this right with everything needed for an education. The social safety net did not subsidize electricity for low-income families, and Medicaid doesn't cover prescription eyewear. How could these students possibly reach their full potential under such circumstances? I could see the changes needed to better these students’ lives, but I could not enact them. Our political system remains apathetic or even complicit to the systemic inequality I faced everyday in the classroom. I cared about these students and their success, and it deeply disturbed me to see them seemingly destined for failure because of conditions out of their control.

I only grew more frustrated when I continued to encounter these obstacles with my students. I tried to provide these students with an education that would empower them to be agents of change in their community; instead, when I faced these situations, I felt more helpless than helpful. My students looked to me for help, but I was utterly powerless. I came to the conclusion that to affect positive change would require more than volunteering with these students. Children in these situations needed more from me than an education. Instead of growing more frustrated within the system as I continued to confront these impediments to my students’ success, I decided the entire system needed change. That brought me to the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, and to the Summer Academy Fellowship.

This summer, I will be researching and writing a policy proposal regarding economic equality and equitable development in New York City. I am also working with Operation Hope to provide financial guidance and education to low-income communities. My students remain my driving motivation: I hope this work improves their lives, and the lives of other students in similar situations. To meet their needs and help them achieve their best, our system needs to change.

Casey McQuillan, one of four Andrew Goodman Foundation Fellows in the 2014 NYC Summer Academy, is a rising sophomore and active Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network member at Amherst College studying Math, Economics, and Law.

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