Monday, November 9, 2015

Adjusting for Poverty

In a recent NYT article, Eduardo Porter outlines the Economic Policy Institute's report whose findings conclude that once U.S. students' PISA scores are adjusted for social status, we're actually doing significantly better than we thought we were.
"Then the researchers divided students into groups depending on the number of books in their homes, a measure of the academic resources at families’ disposal. This adjustment significantly reduced the American deficit, especially among students on the bottom rungs of the resource ladder. 
American students from families with the least educational resources, as it turned out, scored better on the PISA math test than similar children in France and about the same as Britons, Germans and Irish."
Credit: PhotoPin, licensed under CC by 2.0
These "adjusted" results shouldn't be too surprising for educators entrenched in these realities. We know if we adjust anything for socioeconomic status, we see gains. The issue isn't, "we're doing better once we adjust for poverty." The real issue to me is: we have a lot of poverty for a developed country, and we continue to unfairly burden schools with the responsibility of eradicating it. As if poverty starts and ends with schools. 

My experience in education has been grounded in teaching over-age, under-credited youth in alternative high schools in NYC. Translation: I've only taught adolescents coming from the "the bottom rung of society," as Mr. Porter puts it. Sure, I believe many of my former students are in a better place compared to their peers in similar situations globally (in developed nations, of course). My former students have access to certain privileges, rights, and safety nets. Yet beyond simply "showing up" to school, there aren't any supports available to "propel" students out of poverty, as is assumed what school is "supposed" to do. We often fail to acknowledge an underlying assumption in this dialogue: if students come to school, they will succeed. 

There are certain character traits that need to be developed in children in order for them to succeed in school. Resilience, grit, optimism, learning for pleasure, among others. These may seem obvious, but my teaching experience proved it's these very skills my students lacked, and their absence ultimately led to them dropping out, getting arrested, or worse, getting killed. For some reason, there's a narrative out there that claims students who live in poverty will automatically seek to excel in school once they're given the opportunity to learn. Anybody who has ever taught in an underprivileged school for more than two years (that's important) will tell you otherwise. 

Credit: FindMemes
Unfortunately, when we talk about schools "equalizing opportunity," we ignore the bigger issues, starting from the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Most of my at-risk students never quite made it past the second level. And let me tell you bloggers, economists, ed-pundits, and pontificators something: it's really difficult teaching a child anything when s/he doesn't know (a) where they're spending the night (b) who (if anyone) will be home for them and/or (c) if they'll be any food on the table once they get there. I don't care how "inclusive" your school setting is, or how great your classroom culture is, if a kid is hungry, tired, sleep deprived, and/or abused, it's going to be a very complicated situation.

This elephant in the room creates an uncomfortable divide. To the credit of teachers, I bet most of them are likely able to empathize with these students. However, they're experiencing a professional conflict. Do they hold this child accountable to "high expectations" or do they let the kid slide due to the extenuating circumstances? 
"Hey Stephanie, I can see you falling asleep at your desk. I know you have a housing situation going on (whispered)... but I need you to focus okay? Graphing quadratic functions is going to be on this week's assessment and the state exam." Awful.
In my last three years as an educator, I taught at a charter school for at-risk students in the South Bronx. Sexual education was never offered at this school, which is shocking because these are the students who should be engaged in these conversations. To clarify, "health" class was offered and is mandated for all students in NYC, but alternative schools (where resources are often prioritized to core content areas) rarely ever invest in these courses, nor are educators encouraged to engage in the "real" dialogues so necessary for this student population. 

Here are three essential questions I have heard former students ask each other, but have never heard them discussed in class:
  • "Is it right to have a child this young if I can't even take care of myself?"
  • "My friend has two kids, and she loves taking care of them, is it that easy?"
  • "My dad never stuck around, do you think I could do better?" 
It's no surprise I have so many former students with children, and it's also no surprise they themselves were born to parents who were also in their teens. Why are our most neediest students not receiving real sexual education? Or, why are they able to take sex-ed online where they can simply click through lessons and worksheets and achieve a passing score after only a few hours on a computer? I can't imagine a school that lets kids take Common Core Algebra 1 online, but mandates sex-ed in-person. Sure, it's not in our place to tell people what to do, but we can at least educate them with facts and hope they make the right decision (which is obviously: you shouldn't have a kid at fifteen: your family is on food stamps, you have two younger siblings, and the zip code you were raised indicates you're going to struggle as is). 

Schools that cater to at-risk, poverty-stricken kids don't have time to teach the stuff that's high impact and hits close-to-home. Topics such as sexual education, black disenfranchisement, gang involvement, and personal wealth management are often left out of the curriculum at schools with a low socioeconomic target population because they have to double-down on increasing their student achievement data (i.e. test scores). In NYC, if your school population is on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, you are still assessed in the same way other schools are, which creates conflict and incentives to cheat by administrators, teachers, and students. If you don't think any of this is true, schedule a visit to any of these transfer schools. Then, talk to those teachers off school grounds after dismissal and prepare yourself for brutal honesty.

My conclusion is not that test scores would go up and poverty would be eradicated if schools taught poor children sex-ed and wealth management. Rather, essential skills, knowledge, and personal growth are being sacrificed because schools are being asked to simultaneously boost test scores and eradicate poverty. And because of that, poverty-stricken children all over this country are growing up to hate learning. 
 
In the NYT, Mr. Porter asks, "Is it reasonable to ask public schools to fix societal problems that start holding disadvantaged children back before they are conceived?" Sir, our country started asking public schools to fix these problems a long time ago via "no-excuses" charter schools. In NYC, these charter schools are often too short-staffed to offer electives beyond the core curriculum, stifling students' creativity. Teacher retention rates in these settings are ridiculously low, and their school disciplinary policies are far too rigid. Finally, if at the end of the day your child poses too much of a "problem" at these no-excuses institutions, he/she is likely already on a list and will soon be booted off to a regular public school (perpetuating the problem). Overall test scores up, resource-sucking problem kids down. 

It doesn't look like our country is ready to ease this pressure off schools, so if we're going to task schools with building social welfare, we should focus on holistic strategies that bring back schools as our "local, community democratic centers." We should consider investing in ways to incentivize parents and guardians into the school building, not just to come for parent-teacher conferences. Parents should see their child's school building as their place of learning too, where they can enroll in skills-based training programs, volunteering programs, mentorship programs, etc. We shouldn't just extend the school day for kids who need remediation, parents should be incentivized to come and learn too (keyword: incentivize, not mandate). Twenty years ago, it was cheaper to buy produce from places we'd never heard of. Today it's still cheaper, yet more and more of us are opting to pay more to purchase local. Investing in the fortification and expansion of our local public schools as democratic, community centers of learning might be expensive, but could be healthier for us in the long-run.