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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

More on Education and Poverty

by folkbum

Far from refocusing the debate at a grand national or state-wide level with my JS op-ed, all I've managed to do is bug myself. Or, rather, allow myself to be bugged by those who will not get it.

I already noted Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan, but there were a few others. For example, Kevin Fischer. I do not regularly read Fischer, as I teach freshmen most of the day and don't need to deal with more of that. But Fischer is on lately about some bone-headed project of his whereby he sets about to prove the liberal bias of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He managed to set the criteria so narrowly he can't help but win. (For example, Fischer writes of one op-ed, "[The author] writes about a bipartisan proposal that has the support of the MMAC" and then calls the piece "liberal." Sheesh.)

The day my piece ran, Fischer of course labeled it "liberal." Which confuses me a little: I remember fairly clearly being in college (unlike some of the people I went to college with, I suspect) and having these debates in my education classes about the proper role of education. I'm pretty sure that the "conservative" position in those debates was that schooling should not be the means to societal change. In my piece, I clearly argued that schools cannot, and cannot be relied upon or demanded to do so, adequately overcome the effects of poverty and other societal ills in the wider community. Which, as I suggested, is in my view a fairly "conservative" notion.

Whatever. Fischer signs off on his description of my op-ed with "It is also insulting to suggest poor children are incapable of learning because they're poor." I suggested no such thing, of course, but it should not really surprise you that Fischer is willing to willfully misinterpret what I wrote.

Monday's paper also featured another letter to the editor on the subject. Our writer here says, "Poverty is not and never will be the cause of poor Milwaukee Public Schools results. If so, we would not have, now or throughout history, the many, many citizens who came out of slum conditions to gain wealth, fame, notoriety or even a good middle-class life."

Like Fischer's deliberate mischaracterizing my piece to suggest I believe that poverty makes children "incapable of learning," this writer suggests that the many success stories of poor students overcoming the odds prove that there is not a strong correlation between poverty and poor educational achievement, and that, as the editors' titling of his letter put it, "poverty is too often an excuse."

Let me be absolutely clear about this: Poverty and its effects create a cluster of challenging conditions that schools, with their present level of resources, cannot overcome for all students at all times, particularly in urban or rural areas with high concentrations of poor students. Furthermore, it is ridiculous and to demand that schools be the institution to fix those conditions and to punish schools when they fail to do so.

And yes, of course there are exceptions, particular confluences of teaching, parenting, and learning that buck the general trend. But such exceptions are simply not easily replicable to all--if they were, don't you think we'd be doing it by now? But the fact is that there is not one single urban school district with high concentrations of poor students that is performing at anything like the rates its suburban neighbors do. No one has found that silver bullet.

And let me also be clear about this part: I am not suggesting in any way that poverty creates an inability to learn, just the conditions under which learning becomes very difficult. Consider this partial list of the effects of poverty on children:
  • poor children start school with significantly reduced vocabularies
  • poor children's brains develop differently
  • poor children are less likely to have private music, art, or foreign language instruction, all of which can increase IQ and achievement later in school
  • poor students are less likely to participate in organized sports, which can help children learn appropriate public behavior
  • poor students are more likely to have lead poisoning, asthma, diabetes, and other health problems that affect learning or school attendance
  • poor students are more likely to change schools more often
  • poor students tend to forget more over the summer vacation than do their wealthier peers
And that's just off the top of my head this morning.

Clearly, not every child who grows up poor has to deal with all of these factors, and experience suggests that many poor students will overcome disadvantages to graduate and succeed. But the data are also clear that in general that success is just plain harder to get. That's why I keep saying it's ridiculous that people expect MPS alone to overcome all of these deficits for all of our students, at least not without a significant change in the amount of and how we spend our resources.

And to be even more crystally clear: I am not suggesting, as MPS school board candidate ReDonna Rodgers commented here last week, that any of this is pretense to surrender, or "a nice safe excuse for doing nothing." If I believed that, I would not work anywhere near so hard at my job as I do, and I would not be so passionate about the issue.

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