Regaining the Collective Responsibility Needed for Our Students to Succeed

Poverty in America is a drastic problem. Its ability to manifest into all facets of life gives it plague like symptoms. Contradictions imbedded in the rhetoric used to discuss social policy further skew our judgment of disparity. One of the largest clashes in America is between our capitalist framework and our democratic ideals. The stage with perhaps the greatest stakes upon which this war wages on is in our classrooms. Education is considered as the “Golden Ticket” out of poverty, as the “Great Equalizer,” yet students living in poverty enter our schools with a different level of preparedness than their middle class and upper class peers. Additionally, equal access does not mean equal opportunity. Education in America is afforded to all, but all receive varying levels of support and enrichment, at school, and at home. Some enter hungry for learning.  But others enter hungry for food.

      University of Pennsylvania scholar Angela Duckworth, and renowned writer Paul Tough have both convincingly argued that instilling gritty and tenacious mentalities in our children can help them overcome larger challenges, like poverty. While this is certainly true to a degree, these arguments gloss over the implications of structural inequalities, conflating the basic right to an education with the ability to succeed.

We have become prone to discussing disparities in student performance in isolation from other factors that contribute to them. These conversations often ignore factors like inequity in per pupil spending, differences in the quality of resources between schools, and the vast differences in the time spent on learning between middle-class and lower-income youth.  Instead of posing the problem as an “achievement gap” and reinforcing the idea that individual effort determines outcomes, we should acknowledge an “opportunity gap,” to better address the disparities limiting children from achieving.    

Sociological research has consistently shown that public school students from wealthier backgrounds attain higher levels and better quality of education than others (Bowles and Gintis, 2011). Still, poor students need schools to be the positive institutions where they can have their basic needs for food, shelter, and supervision met. Don’t they also deserve the same quality education their wealthier peers receive? In fact, policies that look to equalize opportunities, such as offering universal free breakfast for all students regardless of income, have been proven to increase attendance and increase academic achievement (Leos-Urbel, 2011). This goes to show that equal treatment can have immense benefits.

The United States continues to have the highest income inequity among first-world nations (Marsh, 2011). All the grit in the world won’t change that. And instead of merit, a student’s demographic profile is the best predictor of college-readiness—with the students’ race, zip code and family income at the very top of the list.  In 2012, the Annenberg Institute found that in 19 of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods only 10% of seniors graduated from high school college-ready. These neighborhoods are made up of close to 100% black and Latino residents. In contrast, in the wealthiest neighborhoods of Manhattan, the vast majority of students were college-ready. Less than 10% of residents in these neighborhoods are black and Latino.

Parents with high social mobility can move to the regions where schools serve middle and high socio-economic families with schools that are funded from the real estate taxes on their more expensive homes.  The result is an increase in this disparity and the isolation of poverty. It can also be argued that schools today are still as racially segregated as we were before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. While the Civil Rights movement has brought fourth great advancements, some schools today are as racially segregated as they were more than six decades ago. A new report from the Civil Rights Project of UCLA has shown that many newly established charters are the least diverse of all New York schools, with less than 1% of white students enrolled in 73% of them. In New York City, many minority students attend school without a single white classmate.

This is an immense tragedy because it prevents us from celebrating the multicultural and diverse nature of our country with integrity, but even more for the implications that this inequality has on student outcomes. In addition, it is black and Latino students who then attend schools with less diversity and have lower chances for future success. In 2009-10, the average black New York student attended a school where only 17.7% of other students were white. In California, the figure was 18.9%; in Illinois, 18.8%.

Underachievement harms economic growth. A McKinsey study showed that if America can narrow the achievement gap between white students and black and Latino students, G.D.P. would go up between $310 and $525 billion. In our recent recession, more educated populations recovered faster than less educated communities. The need to view education as a collective responsibility is now greater than ever.

In 2011, a low-income public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant of Brooklyn obtained the highest gains in literacy and math of any public elementary school in the borough. The school’s accomplishments were even more remarkable considering that 100% of the students came from homes with incomes below the poverty line, 28% of the children were categorized as needing special education, and 40% of them were homeless.

The school responded to both academic and non-academic needs of students by expanding access to health services, establishing partnerships with social services, extending their school day, and working with community organizations to address the needs of parents as well. In doing so, the school eventually improved achievement by working first to expand opportunity, through the help of their community. 

Poverty is clearly a complex issue but by no means is it incurable.  It has a large effect upon schools, and subsequently on our children’s ability to learn and reach their true potential. To show defiance to the spreading of inequality requires a comprehensive approach from all angles, and the involvement of the entire community. Schools cannot be held accountable alone to be the “Great Equalizer,” when they face so many unique challenges, many of which come from outside the classroom. Given our current context, that vision remains unfulfilled. It leads us to adopt a cop-out mentality, which is the exact opposite of what we should be doing when it comes to matters that involve children, and the future of this country.

 References:

 

Duckworth, Angela L., et al. "Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals." Journal of personality and social psychology 92.6 (2007): 1087.

Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. Haymarket Books, 2011.

[1] Marsh, John. Class dismissed: Why we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality. NYU Press, 2011.

Fruchter, Norm, et al. "Is Demography Still Destiny? Neighborhood Demographics and Public High School Students' Readiness for College in New York City. A Research and Policy Brief." Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University (NJ1) (2012).

Leos-Urbel, Jacob, et al. "Not just for poor kids: The impact of universal free school breakfast on meal participation and student outcomes." Unpublished manuscript. New York University (2011).

References:

Duckworth, Angela L., et al. "Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals." Journal of personality and social psychology 92.6 (2007): 1087.

Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. Haymarket Books, 2011.

[1] Marsh, John. Class dismissed: Why we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality. NYU Press, 2011.

Fruchter, Norm, et al. "Is Demography Still Destiny? Neighborhood Demographics and Public High School Students' Readiness for College in New York City. A Research and Policy Brief." Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University (NJ1) (2012).

Leos-Urbel, Jacob, et al. "Not just for poor kids: The impact of universal free school breakfast on meal participation and student outcomes." Unpublished manuscript. New York University (2011).

Anindya Kundu,  author of this article, is a doctoral student of Dr. Pedro Noguera