“Overcoming Poverty’s Damage to Learning“, David Bornstien’s latest “Fixes” column in the NYTimes, describes the findings of researchers who wanted to ascertain the impact of 9/11 on children in NYC schools:
Many children in city schools exhibited symptoms of trauma — but the problems weren’t clearly attributable to 9/11 nor were they clustered near Ground Zero. Such symptoms were, however, concentrated in schools serving the city’s poorest children. And the students’ sense of threat or insecurity stemmed not so much from terrorism as from exposure to violence, inadequate housing, sudden family loss, parents with depression or addictions, and so forth.
Bornstein goes on to describe the research that followed, research that confirmed the adverse impact of poverty on schools:
Across the United States, in six of the nation’s nine largest school districts, average graduation rates have fallen below 50 percent. There is a pattern, says Cantor: Low-performing schools tend to share high stress, negative cultures (lots of yelling, punishments and inconsistent responses from adults), students with low readiness to learn who are two to four years behind grade levels, and teachers and staff members who have never been trained for these kinds of challenges.
Bornstein shows that there is a way schools can address these issues… but it requires time, patience and a willingness to look at data other than test scores. Turnaround, the program that the balance of Bornstien’s column focuses on, engages the entire school staff in the problems individual students bring to school, effectively accepting the reality that each child’s fundamental needs need to be met before learning can take place. He provides this overview of the program:
Turnaround takes a whole-school approach, inviting everyone in the school community to play a role in transforming the school’s culture. That means the principal must have a vision of a different teaching and learning environment, and commit time and resources to building it; teachers need to acquire new skills and tools to manage classrooms in ways that build trust while engaging students in rigorous instruction; and students must come to see school as important to their success in life, and connect that idea to their own actions in the classroom.
As one who worked as a HS disciplinarian for six years in the late 1970s, the findings on poverty-stricken children’s emotional conditions are unsurprising. During the time I handled student discipline I observed that most of the problems in the two schools where I worked were the result of problems the students encountered at home. Some of the teachers understood that in these instances the misbehaving students required counseling instead of punishment… but most believed that quick and severe punishment was needed instead of quick and caring intervention. Turnaround’s whole school approach would have been benefitted the students far more than the progressively harsher penalties most teachers at that time sought.
My daughter in Brooklyn sent me a link to an article from The Brownstoner, an on-line newsletter for borough residents, titled “How To Research Schools Before Making Your Real Estate Decision”. She insightfully indicated in the email that the the inability of some parents to afford houses in the neighborhoods with good schools contributes to the allure of charter schools.
I’ve written several posts in the past on this issue and am writing again because I’ve believed for decades that economic heterogeneity should be an important element in public education. The schools I attended growing up in West Chester PA and Tulsa OK included children of parents who came from all walks of life. As a result the little league team I played on in OK had the sons of presidents of banks and oil companies as well as kids from single parent homes who needed to have their gloves donated. In PA the high school served the children of farmers, factory workers, college professors, and white-collar workers like my father who commuted to work in Delaware and, in some cases, Philadelphia for work. The classes were homogeneously grouped, but the buses, athletic teams, and extra-curricular activities included a demographic cross section. My sense is that school demographics have changed since the time I grew up as demographic divisions between communities increased and hardened, in large measure because of zoning regulations in the suburbs and red-lining practices in urban areas.
How do we get out of the spiral we’re in whereby homeowners pay a premium to acquire houses in the best school districts which increases their property tax-base and property values in one town or neighborhood while diminishing the tax-base and property values in another town or neighborhood. The answer is relatively simple IF we believe all children should have the same opportunity to succeed in school. We should provide the schools in low income neighborhoods with the same resources available in high income neighborhoods… and one of those resources is the chance to be in classes, on sports teams, and in clubs with children from different economic backgrounds. While we like to claim a desire to provide an equal opportunity for all children, our inaction on this topic speaks much louder than our words.
Because I was out of town for nearly a month, I fell behind in reading New Yorker articles and missed the March 16 issue that featured Jill Lepore’s “Annals of Society” article on economic inequality titled “Richer and Poorer“. The article reviews three recent books on the topic of economic inequality: “Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis” by Robert Putnam; ““The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power” by Steve Fraser; and, “Inequality: What Can Be Done?,” by Anthony Atkinson– which is scheduled for publication later this spring.
In the article Lepore describes the history of the Gini coefficient, which is the statistical measure used to determine the extent of inequality in a nation and the recent trend in our country where the Gini coefficient is the highest its ever been, meaning that inequality is at its peak. Lepore notes that there is no dispute over the fact that inequality is higher than ever. but there is a dispute over the cause of it and the policies needed to close the gap.
In the course of the article, Lepore contrasts those who use statistics to make a point versus those who use stories to make a point… and she notes that all three books use a narrative as opposed to statistical approach in reporting on the issue of inequality. Why? Using Charles Dickens’ character Thomas Gradgrind as an exemplar of the “numbers man” who favors statistics over stories Lepore writes:
Numbers men are remote and cold of heart, Dickens thought. But, of course, the appeal of numbers lies in their remoteness and coldness. Numbers depersonalize; that remains one of their chief claims to authority, and to a different explanatory force than can be found in, say, a poem. “Quantification is a technology of distance,” as the historian of science Theodore Porter has pointed out. “Reliance on numbers and quantitative manipulation minimizes the need for intimate knowledge and personal trust.” It’s difficult to understand something like income inequality across large populations and to communicate your understanding of it across vast distances without counting. But quantification’s lack of intimacy is also its weakness; it represents not only a gain but also a loss of knowledge.
This resonated with me because it is evident that the use of test results and other impersonal “Big Data” is used to claim authority… and the cold statistical measures depersonalize the work of teachers and schools and “minimize the need for intimate knowledge and personal trust” that is required when one examines the lives of children in schools. The section on Putnam’s book provides several excellent examples of how unequal economics at home result in unequal opportunities for children at school. Putnam’s recommended solutions also resonated, particularly those that are specific to public education:
(Putnam) proposes changes in four realms: family structure, parenting, school, and community. His policy recommendations include expanding the earned-income tax credit and protecting existing anti-poverty programs; implementing more generous parental leaves, better child-care programs, and state-funded preschool; equalizing the funding of public schools, providing more community-based neighborhood schools, and increasing support for vocational high-school programs and for community colleges; ending pay-to-play extracurricular activities in public schools and developing mentorship programs that tie schools to communities and community organizations.
But… as Lepore notes,
All of these ideas are admirable, many are excellent, none are new, and, at least at the federal level, few are achievable. The American political imagination has become as narrow as the gap between rich and poor is wide.
Indeed as she describes Fraser’s dismay at the lack of anger over inequality and Atkinson’s optimistic perspective on actions that could be taken to reduce inequality, Lepore concludes that things are likely to remain as they are because ultimately only Congress can solve the problem and she finds it unlikely that Congress will take any meaningful action on this any time soon:
The growth of inequality isn’t inevitable. But, insofar as Americans have been unable to adopt measures to reduce it, the numbers might seem to suggest that the problem doesn’t lie with how Americans treat one another’s kids, as lousy as that is. It lies with Congress.
The key to change lies with the disenfranchised Millenials who have lost faith in government. Lepore highlights two exemplars of the economic divide: Chelsea whose affluent parents are actively engaged in her school work and aspires to college and David, who’s lived in several dysfunctional family arrangements and is now laid off from a fast food job. She illustrates how inequality corrodes democracy with two short sentences:
Chelsea is interested in politics. David has never voted.
If the Davids of this nation are engaged, inequality will be addressed. If they remain at home on election day, the Gini coefficient will only get worse.
When I was an undergraduate trying to make every dollar I could to pay my tuition and cover my living costs I worked part time as a cashier in a grocery store chain and in the stockroom of a retail chain. In both of these jobs I was given my schedule a week in advance. Both employers worked around my class schedule and, in part because I was a reliable employee and, in the case of the grocery store, because of the union, I was able to trade hours with other employees to get time off for family events. While I appreciated the relative flexibility of the employers, I was relieved when my earnings as a newly hired teacher combined with my wires earnings meant I could stop working part time.
Today’s part-time employees live in a different world— one where flexibility works for the employer and one where unions have no say whatsoever in the wages and working conditions of employees. As Michele Chen reported in a recent article in Nation,
Many retail workers are stuck in a segment of the labor force known as “involuntary part-time”: those forced to work fewer than thirty-five hours a week and who would generally otherwise work full-time, but can’t, due to a lack of available jobs.
And these involuntary part-time workers face horrific scheduling for their work. Using scheduling algorithms that optimize the wages paid to employees, corporations employing large numbers of part-time employees– like Walmart, Starbuck, and any number of fast food and retail franchisers– require part-timers to be on call 24/7. The result?
The consequence is not just impoverishment but deepening long-term instability in workers’ family lives and crushing personal stress. As Esther Kaplan points out, low-wage workers face intense pressure to adhere to unstable schedules and to ramp up speed and productivity at the same time—no time to schedule daycare, but always on-call to take a last-minute night-shift.
This plays out in schools in having fewer parents available for scheduled parent conferences, more parents scrambling at the last minute to send their children off to school with proper attire and completed homework assignments, and lots of stress in the homes of children whose parents are often working more than one of these involuntary part-time jobs to make ends meet.
Walmart and Starbucks received lots of relatively favorable coverage when they unilaterally decided to raise wages, but, as Chen notes, more is needed:
An extra dollar-an-hour for impoverished Walmart associates helps, but they want good jobs, equitable schedules and real control over their labor, not just higher wages. Countless workers are still forced to take whatever they can get—which is often simply whatever the boss is willing to give them.
Shareholders want profits which means they want to impose flexible hours on employees more than they want to empower employees to arrange flexible work hours among themselves and to have the flexibility to schedule doctors appointments for their children… let alone volunteer in their child’s school or coach their child’s little league team. Those making decisions about which scheduling algorithm is the most cost effective for the company need to look at what algorithms are most effective for the well being of their employees and see that the two are, in some cases, mutually exclusive. If we want strong communities and a stable work force, increasing the minimum wage only gets us part way there.
In the latest item to add to the “failed assumptions of reform” file, add this report from Detroit where Detroit News op ed writer Nolan Finley laments the failure of three “emergency managers” to rectify the financial problems with Detroit’s school system and the likely failures of the fourth one, Darnell Early, who has just taken over. But here’s the kicker: Finley mentions in passing that Governor Snyder has a plan for fixing the schools… and it’s one that will work very well from the Koch Brothers standpoint:
There’s talk of placing all schools, traditional and charter, under a new education czar, who may or may not be (Detroit) Mayor Mike Duggan. Where that leaves Earley and his plan, who knows?
Well I’ve got a wild guess as to where it leaves Darnell Early: on the outside looking in! And where does it leave Detroit school children? The same place. And where does it leave the privatizers who are likely the ones who are promoting the “talk of placing all schools, traditional and charter, under a new education czar”… laughing all the way to the bank. Welcome to the 21st century version of for-profit public schools.
I just received a copy of Frank Bruni’s Sunday essay titled “How To Survive College Admissions Madness”. The essay describes several anecdotes of college bound students who fail to gain acceptance to top tier colleges and succeed nevertheless. But the essay fails to acknowledge the reality that only 40% of ALL children between the ages of 18 and 24 attend college: that is a majority of students are NOT on the college track even though a majority of high school graduates DO attend college. Bruni writes:
“…a majority (of American families) are focused on making sure that their kids simply attend a decent college — any decent college — and on finding a way to help them pay for it.”
To which I responded:
Sorry to burst your bubble and the bubble of many readers, but roughly 60% of 18 to 24 year olds are NOT in college… which is a reflection of another reality: many parents disengage from their child’s school experience and, thus, are NOT focused on getting their youngster through HS let alone into HS. Engaged students come from the homes of engaged parents… and if we are really serious about improving education in our country we need to find ways to keep parents engaged in the lives of their children. To do so we might need to pay all parents a decent wage, give them and their children medical care, schedule their work at predictable hours, make sure they get sick leave if their child is ill, and schedule teacher conferences at a time that is convenient for them.
Frank Bruni is a true believer in the “school reform” meme— his article includes the story of a 26 year old who didn’t get into the college of her choice, joined TFA, and now, at the age of 26, is leading her own charter school. He, like many who have not witnessed the dispiriting nature of poverty, believes ALL parents think like his parents and the parents of his college attending friends. If that were the case we would not have struggling students or disparate earnings. Until those in the “reform movement recognize that poverty is an obstacle that must be overcome and not “an excuse” for the struggles many children have in school we will never get at the root of the problems in education.
Nick Kristoff’s NYTimes column, “When Liberals Blew It“, marks the nearly complete rehabilitation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a sub-Cabinet member of the Johnson administration who later became a member of Nixon’s cabinet and ultimately was a three term senator in New York. Moynihan was a persona non grata to the liberal wing of the Democrat party in the 60s based on a report he wrote describing the adverse impact of both slavery and single parent households on the upbringing of young blacks. At the time he issued his report, he was excoriated by many on the left and many black activists for their perception he was “blaming the victim” for their station in life. Kristof selected one quote that captured the antipathy Moynihan generated at the time:
“My major criticism of the report is that it assumes that middle-class American values are the correct values for everyone in America,” protested Floyd McKissick, then a prominent African-American civil rights leader.
When I was a graduate student at University of Pennsylvania in the early 1970s I wrote a report advocating early intervention for children being raised in poverty, recommending more funds for structured preschool education programs like the ones in Ann Arbor Michigan. Many of my classmates at the time echoed McKissick’s criticism, and others, who privately agreed with my proposals later, were quiet— as were other moderate liberals at the time.
The government’s role in mitigating against family dysfunction is not easy to define. We tend to favor keeping children with biological parents for as long as possible even if those parents have limited resources and/or limited parenting skills. We tend to impose economic penalties on wives who want to move out of abusive relationships even though remaining in those relationships exposes their children to violent and aggressive behavior. And, as Kristof notes, we tend to imprison the fathers of too many children reinforcing the vicious cycle of crime and poverty in impoverished neighborhoods. Here’s Kristoff’s analysis of the conservatives’ fundamental error in the fight against poverty:
Conservatives shouldn’t chortle at the evidence that liberals blew it, for they did as well. Conservatives say all the right things about honoring families, but they led the disastrous American experiment in mass incarceration; incarceration rates have quintupled since the 1970s. That devastated families, leading countless boys to grow up without dads.
The conservative’s belief that “government is the problem” also damaged any hope of meaningful early childhood intervention and their ongoing objections to “government schools” makes any expansion of preschool to help needy children highly unlikely. And many of today’s liberals, like their predecessors, are likely to push back at any effort to have the government impose “middle class American values”, especially if those “middle class American values” involved funding any religious organizations or advocating mindless consumption.
One thing IS clear: continuing what we’ve done for the past 50 years will get us nowhere… and one thing we HAVEN’T been doing is spending too much money on this issue. My thought: if we want to break the cycle of dysfunction that has existed for decades and is getting worse, we need to be willing to spend more on early intervention and one unarguable need is access to medical and mental health services for all children, not just those fortunate to have been born in the right zip code. Maybe a latter day Moynihan will emerge— perhaps someone like Robert Putnam— and call for something along these lines so that we can move the debate away from moral issues related to single parent households and toward ameliorating the physical and psychological pain their children struggle with on a daily basis.
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