Sunday, October 20, 2013

Poverty: 50 Pound Backpack Dragging Down American Students

A new study reminds us that poverty is the giant backpack dragging down American students.” Jordan Weissmann, “Study: Almost Half of Public School Students Are Now Low-Income,”
Start talking about the poverty of American students and  you’re quickly accused of making excuses for a bad education system, or of pushing a political agenda. Truth is, poverty is real, and if speaking out against is political, then so be it! Those who haven’t experienced it or who don’t see it everyday, can easily dismiss it and comfort themselves that poverty is lifestyle choice. "Those who are poor are poor because of the decisions they've made. They deserve it," is the thinking of many politicians. That statement is political too, and I would say a bit of out of touch with reality. Poverty isn't a lifestyle choice; it is a direct result of a society that has chosen to put undying faith in an economic system based on competition, and at the end of any competition, there’s going to be winners and there’s going to be losers. Those in poverty are the losers. In the American system, those who are winning have re-written the rules to make easier for them to win. Under those conditions, I am not surprised that almost half of our public school students now classified as low-income.

As Weissmann points out in her article, “Your success in school depends largely on what your parents earn.” Those who try to erase that reality by focusing intently on the “Great Teacher Argument” as the way out of poverty are entirely dismissing poverty's effects on achievement. Sure, there are stories and anecdotes of students overcoming poverty and difficult life circumstances to become “successful” in terms of financial and economic security. But these “Horatio Alger stories” are hardly scientific evidence. Like Alger’s propaganda-like “rags-to-riches” stories peddled during the Gilded-Age,” many today have once again bought into that thinking, and they’re the ones trying to drive a reform agenda based on ideals that didn't work during the Gilded Age and will not work now. Getting out of poverty takes determination and perseverance but it also takes getting some breaks along the way too, and today, too often those breaks are in the hands of those who have wealth.

There were some other interesting data in Weismann’s article too, such as the two maps showing the long-term trends of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches. The first map (Check them out in the article here.) shows clearly where regionally the number of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches has grown. Bet you can guess where those states are? The South. In the South and the Far West, the numbers of students identified as poor by free and reduced lunch qualification has increased to 50% and beyond in most of those states. Clearly, all is not well economically with everyone. The "rags-to-riches" fairy tale is increasingly being proved wrong.

In the article, Weissmann points to 3 takeaways from this data:
  • “Poverty---or in many cases, near poverty---is the 50 pound back-pack dragging down US students.” When those who bemoan the “dire conditions” of American student achievement choose to ignore this fact or dismiss it as an excuse, they ignore reality. Poverty is worsening, and no amount of faith in Ragged Dick stories are going to pull students out of it. The idea of “educating kids out of poverty” is a fairy tale of which Horatio Alger would be proud. We as educators can't just dismiss poverty as something over which we have no control. As advocates for a fair and equitable system of education, we can keep the reality of poverty in the discussions about education policy and American economic policy. I suspect that those pushing the current economic policies who favor the wealthy would like to dismiss poverty as something which is none of our business, but it is educational malpractice to simply discard it.
  • “Policy makers and pundits get worked up” about American student performance on international tests. The United States does not compare well in all cases, but the idea that you can compare the scores to begin with is ludicrous. American students are much more diverse socio-economically, and head-to-head comparisons often ignore this factor. As Weismann points out, if schools are still “in a sense factories, then Massachusetts districts get much better raw material to work with than Texas districts.” The whole idea of comparing scores is based on the inherent belief that students here are not very different from students in Finland or other countries. That idea is dead wrong. Students are different even within our own country, and their experiences and opportunities are different. The next time an Arne Duncan or some other state level leader bemoans the downward spiral of American students on international tests, perhaps our best course of action is simply ignore them. Don't give credence to their blathering. They are simply using invalid comparisons to push their reform agendas.
  • Worst of all, according to Weismann, “these poverty numbers are a glimpse of the future.” This is because students from low-income families tend to become parents of low-income families. By this logic, America has become one massive poverty factory, and sadly, it’s going to take more than corporatized education reform efforts system to end dismantle America's poverty machine. Our economic and educational policy should not be about perpetuating a system that favors the wealthy and haves; it should be about providing opportunities for all. My fear is that as our poverty numbers grow, more and more will find themselves in poverty.
Perhaps it’s true that the poor will always be with us. And, it can be sometimes used as an excuse for low expectations for some students. But the reality is, it exists and it does have effects that sometimes not even the most heroic teacher and principal can overcome.

The problem now is not only that poverty exists. The problem is that many education reformers dismiss it. It is often seen by educators as a subject “too political to talk about.” But part of me can’t help but wonder if that’s not what those who are enjoying this unprecedented wealth want us to believe. It is in their interest that we believe the Horatio Alger stories from the Gilded Age. As long as we believe that poverty is no excuse for being successful, then we’re not going to do anything to fix an economic and political system that is engineered to benefit the wealthy, sometimes at the expense of the not-so wealthy.

As an educator who is both passionate about public schools and the education of students, I for one, will not dismiss poverty as an obstacle students can climb over and beyond. I will continue to speak out against our American political and economic system that now mirrors that of the Gilded Age more than ever, and that gives those with means all of the breaks.

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