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Why Do the Poor Do So Badly in School? 

There is little doubt, in informed education circles, that poor kids, generally speaking, do badly in school. Those who actually study test scores, graduation rates, post secondary acceptance and completion rates, can't help but notice, on every conceivable data point, that the poor do badly. When you look even more carefully, you notice that results rise as you climb through the class system by quintiles or deciles from poor, up to working class, to skilled worker, to lower middle class, to higher professions, to the truly rich. Every step up shows better results. This is true when looking at vocabulary in kindergarten, and it remains true when we examine the SAT scores. of potential college entrants. 


As chiseled into the marble wall of Humboldt University, in Germany, and I paraphrase, “philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”. If indeed, we want to change it, we need to understand the real reasons, exactly, why the poor are doing so badly. Failure to get to the root of this issue, has allowed problems to fester for generations, billions of dollars to be wasted on dubious and unworkable  solutions, economies to suffer from shortages of human capital, families and individuals to suffer grinding poverty, totally unnecessarily. It's just that important.


Ever since the Coleman Report in the 1960s, often cited here, Americans have known that the overwhelming evidence points away from the schoolyard, and towards the neighborhood. The entire right wing “Reform” movement, built on charters, vouchers, education savings accounts, heavy phonics, and  standard testing, in short “blaming bad schools and bad teachers”, is totally misdirected. As business guru Stephen Covey likes to say “it is very disappointing to lean your ladder against the wall and climb very slowly to the top, only to find out that you are leaning against the wrong wall”. 


LeBron James, the greatest basketball player of this generation, certainly has his heart in the right place. Growing up poor in Akron  Ohio, in rust belt America, James decided that he needed to give back and he did it in the form of a charter school unlike others. He had the lowest class sizes in the area. He hired the best, hand picked teachers, provided free meals and wrap-around support services, and yet zero kids could pass the standardized tests in Ohio after 3 years. James set out to prove the above reforms worked. What he proved was that they didn’t work in isolation, without other changes. The school is not the problem.


Policy analyst Matt Bruenig, from think tank People’s Policy Project has a very useful template to examine the most often repeated reasons for the obviously weak educational results of the poor. 


1 ) The Genetics Argument 


Many conservatives believe that the poor simply have bad genetics that continues to replicate itself and even worsen generation after generation. This is not surprising but it is easily refuted by adoption studies that show kids born to poor biological parents but raised by middle class adopting parents, do better than other children, sometimes siblings, left behind.


2 )The Bad Parents Argument 


This agreement supersedes the genetic argument and posits that “bad parents” cause poor kids to post poor academic results. This argument spawned the “Culture of poverty” thesis, accusing parents of being lazy, and passing on “bad habits” leading to a subculture of bad behaviors, attitudes and socialization. This argument has been largely debunked as ‘blaming the victim’ with no evidence of lack of motivation, or a poor work ethic any more than any other groups. (Billings 1974, Carmon 1985, Jones & Luo 1999). 


3 )The Cumulative Effects of Poverty Argument (stress)


The effects of poverty argument is a strong one. With poverty comes instability, deprivation, diet-nutrition issues, neighborhood effects, health effects like hypertension, cortisol levels, epinephrine levels, all of which indicate stress. Frequent moves, all act like sub lethal toxins but in combination, makes poverty really difficult. In a nutshell, stressful. 


4 ) The Bad Schools Argument


As previously mentioned, the entire edifice of privatization, vouchers, charters, testing, phonics, is that public schools and unionized teachers are a deadly combination. This is part and parcel of the anti government anti union screed of the right, all evidence to the contrary. All of the nations that took the Reform direction, (Chile, Sweden, …) declined in world rankings. The 16 nations that routinely score higher than the USA are all primarily public school driven and heavily unionized. Even within the USA, highly unionized states score much higher on their NAPE test than non union states. There is simply nothing to the “bad schools” argument. The education Reform Movement totally ignores the 1960s Coleman exhaustive research, and the research from multiple experts like David Berliner emeritus UAZ who has made almost his entire life’s work the study of poverty and education. 


Berliner agrees with Coleman, and number 3 above, that the effects of poverty, are not the fault of the poor themselves but the fault of benign neglect at best, but more likely the product of a raw, even by peer comparison, form of American capitalism that, by its very nature, generates more poverty than its European or Asian peers in the EU,G7. or OECD nations. 


Berliner notes low birth weight babies, teen pregnancy, mobility, absenteeism, crime and the deprivation of poverty and inequality. In short, you simply cannot improve the education results of the poor without improving the condition of the poor. The two are handcuffed together. 


The standard progressive kit of lower class sizes, destreaming (detracking in USA), ECE, school meals, can make small differences at the margins but will simply not make the significant differences that we are all looking for. The conservative smorgasbord, charters, vouchers, curriculum or pedagogical changes (phonics), standardized testing, more data, will simply have no effect whatsoever. 


The conservative prime directive in education seems to be that we are willing to try almost anything to help the poor achieve better results with only two caveats, the reforms must be virtually cost free, and not involve the mitigation of poverty. Conservatives hate tax increases, and need the poor to remain poor or where are we going to get cheap internal labour to clean the hotels?


The clincher is well known to people who study poverty and education. When you control for socio-economic factors, it doesn't matter much which type of school a student attends. This is why bussing for racial integration has such disappointing results. There may be other benefits but academic improvements are not among them. If you put 100 poor kids in a poor public school, a middle class public school, a charter school, a voucher school, or an upscale private school, but leave them in poverty, the improvements will be negligible at best.


In conclusion, what can we say about the latest education reform dictates of Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, or similar types across the national and international education spectrum? Well this - you simply cannot significantly improve the education results of the poor while leaving them in poverty.  Lecce has his metaphorical ladder leaned up against the wrong wall. 


The most successful jurisdictions - boards, provinces or nations, have the least poverty and the little poverty they do have, is not concentrated. If we look at Bruenigs four possible explanations, it is clearly number 3 “the cumulative effects of poverty” that are at the root of the problem. If Stephen Lecce wants better results, he should raise the minimum wage, encourage unionization of the unorganized, raise Ontario Works (welfare), ODSP, more public housing, dentacare, pharmacare, free glasses for poor kids, you get the picture. Reduce the stress in poor families. Don’t hold your breath.

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