Can The Poor Be Educated?

Given the hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars in additional spending and the blizzard of new regulations, standards, and goals we have put in place over the past decades with the single goal of improving K-12 academic achievement, the basic question remains: How can we spend so much (depending on how you measure it, America ranks either first or second in spending on primary and secondary education) to get so little back from our public school students in terms of measurable learning outcomes, college preparedness, and work readiness?  Is the fault, to paraphrase Shakespeare, not in our schools, but in ourselves?

Specifically, are we, as a country, just too darned poor for our public schools to be expected to succeed?

Even before the recent economic crash, our nation was suffering from persistently high rates of poverty; the economic numbers have only grown worse over the past several years, so recent research data showing that household income is now the single most robust predictor of academic achievement is even more worrisome.  Given this statistical correlation, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many of our educational leaders—under intense pressure to show demonstrable improvements in our public schools—sound increasingly like late 19th century French novelists: the poor cannot be expected to rise above their station, and we simply must understand that their destiny is to fail.

There is, without a doubt, a clear relationship between academic outcomes and poverty, and the argument that poverty is the problem—not our public schools—certainly seems persuasive.  Districts that have more free/reduced lunch students, higher rates of unemployment, and more overall poverty many times have the lowest standardized test scores, and these students are far less likely to graduate from college, which helps to perpetuate the cycle of generational poverty.

This data is, for some, game, set, and match: Poor children are, for reasons public schools cannot control, going to fail at much higher rates than their more privileged counterparts.  Therefore, those who criticize our schools for failing to educate on a broad scale are simply wrong; the circumstances of a poor child’s birth are, as Emile Zola himself might have contended, going to dictate that child’s future—no matter what we do.

There are, I believe, two basic questions we need to ask concerning this idea.

The first question is one that is near and dear to the heart of every statistician: Does correlation demonstrate causality?  Although the moon is visible at night, it does not cause the darkness.  By the same token, we must ask whether poverty leads to ignorance—or ignorance leads to poverty.

Given that we too often expect much less from students who enter school with academic and behavioral deficits born of their life circumstances and, therefore, place them in far less demanding classes, which condemns them to slide ever further behind their economically advantaged peers, it is perhaps still an open question whether schools are being victimized by poor students or poor students are being victimized by their schools.  Moreover, does our insistence on a neighborhood school model that would make Jim Crow proud, where the poor are often the victims of de facto segregation that puts them in the worst schools with the weakest curriculum and the least able teachers, a prescription for continued academic failure—one that we continue to perpetuate because we are unwilling to examine the most basic premises of our current K-12 educational system?

The second question we need to ask ourselves regarding the relationship between poverty and academic achievement is perhaps more important: Are we to simply accept the unacceptable status quo that, to be blunt, does not adequately educate our at-risk population of children and condemns them to futures of failure and frustration?

We can, of course, continue to tweak the same failed models of classroom instruction and course design that, if we are to be honest about it, often result in separating the poorest from the general school population and driving them out the door as quickly as possible.  However, unless we are willing to accept the premise that some children are born to be losers—and reconcile ourselves to the need for massive investments in public assistance and police in the decades stretching before us—we need to ask ourselves some very pointed questions about our willingness to inconvenience the adults working in our public schools in order to save the children they are paid to educate.

Imagine, for example, what would happen if we allowed parents to enroll their children in the best schools available and fully supported that choice with the tax dollars that continue to pour into low-performing public schools?  Weak schools with low standards would be faced with two choices: rapidly improve or, as parents and students continue to abandon them, quickly close.  This would, however, turn on its head our current system of, except in the cases of the absolute worst schools, allowing districts to operate as government-sponsored monopolies that are kept intact regardless of educational outcomes.

Because research continues to show that excellent teachers working in schools with administrators who support them and also insist on high standards for academic achievement and behavior can have an incredible impact on a child’s educational attainment—no matter whether that child is from a rich or poor family—I believe there is hope if we are willing to act.  However, if we are content to allow so many of our schools to be extraordinarily expensive day care simply because many of their students are drawn from poor families, we can continue to expect many of our high school graduates to enter the world unprepared for the challenges of higher education and gainful employment, which will continue to drag down our communities, states, and our nation as we struggle to adapt to the demands of a 21st century economy that demands high-level skills—and the ongoing commitment to educational excellence necessary to develop those skills.

If, however, we continue to believe that K-12 education cannot improve until every family is lifted into the middle class—an increasingly dubious proposition in light of our global economic crisis—we can expect malaise.  It is likely better for us to push our public schools to acknowledge that every child—rich, poor, and in between—can be taught, should be taught, and will be taught, regardless of where he or she happens to start in life.

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