What It Takes to Make a Student...

This week the New York Times Magazine ran a fascinating article on poverty, education and legislation.

At first this looks like a typical NYTimes attack on the failing on No Child Left Behind and it's impact, but upon further reading there are several statements that really stand out and need to be examined further. Starting with this statement "By 2014, the president vowed, African-American, Hispanic and poor children, all of whom were at the time scoring well below their white counterparts and those in the middle class on standardized tests, would not only catch up with the rest of the nation; they would also reach 100 percent proficiency in both math and reading." A great statement a great promise, but upon further reflection, this statement links minorities with poverty and white with middle-class. The great American divide White=wealth and Black/Brown=poverty. Later on our president is quoted as saying “I’m proud to report the achievement gap between white kids and minority students is closing, for the good of the United States.” What happened to the poor kids? Are they catching up?

But I don't want to spend this blog posting on racial and economic divisions. That's been done and at this point the dialog on that point is stalled, instead what's significant about this article is that it admits that poverty is more than just an economic condition, it's also a cultural condition.

"The academics have demonstrated just how deeply pervasive and ingrained are the intellectual and academic disadvantages that poor and minority students must overcome to compete with their white and middle-class peers. The divisions between black and white and rich and poor begin almost at birth, and they are reinforced every day of a child’s life."

So it's going to take more than just bussing kids to better schools, you're going to have to teach them how to learn in that kind of school. It does no good to lead a horse to water, if they don't know how to drink from the pool. The article later goes on to show how little most poor kids are able to drink from the academic pool.

"Hart and Risley showed that language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and academic success later on in a child’s life. Hearing fewer words, and a lot of prohibitions and discouragements, had a negative effect on I.Q.; hearing lots of words, and more affirmations and complex sentences, had a positive effect on I.Q. The professional parents were giving their children an advantage with every word they spoke, and the advantage just kept building up."

Notice this is a difference that transcends race, instead it is a class difference, let me remind you gentle reader that white people can be poor too, and perhaps it's not necessarily their fault...

"...Middle-class children argue with their parents, complain about their parents’ incompetence and disparage parents’ decisions.” Working-class and poor children, by contrast, “learn how to be members of informal peer groups. They learn how to manage their own time. They learn how to strategize.” But outside the family unit, Lareau wrote, the advantages of “natural growth” disappear. In public life, the qualities that middle-class children develop are consistently valued over the ones that poor and working-class children develop. Middle-class children become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack. The cultural differences translate into a distinct advantage for middle-class children in school, on standardized achievement tests and, later in life, in the workplace."

How can we expect an adult who has been taught to respect his elders and not challenge the boss to succeed in a competitive business environment. What if that adult is a female? Two strikes right there, add race and forget it, it's 3 strikes, out. Often in the business environment people from this background are invariably perceived as not being intelligent, because their middle class peers are unable to look beyond the cultural conditioning.

The article goes on to detail how some schools are overcoming this divide, let's just say it takes a lot of work and you can't assume what the kids know, in terms of knowledge or behavior.

Let's think about some of the other social consequences of this upbringing, teen pregnancies, gangs, drugs...? In this light, harder consequences won't work, because it's respect not social acceptance these people seek.

The bottom line, you put your money where your heart is and if we in America want to get serious about poverty and racial inequality in this country, then we have to be willing to spend the money and the time and not expect any real results for several generations.