The Tragedy Of The Uneducated Poor in America

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WASHINGTON – Much has been said about the “crisis” of American public education. Indeed, if we look at the ranking of American high school kids compared to their peers in other developed countries, they do rather poorly in terms of academic achievement. In fact their performance is so bad that one wonders how on earth can America be and stay a leader in sophisticated technologies, innovation and business creation since its young people seem to be chronic under achievers.

The truth about education 

Well, here is the truth. The U.S. academic averages are bad. But the averages hide the fact that there is a new kind of segregation in America; and it is all about education opportunities.

The rich can pay for and get a good education for their children –public or private. The poor cannot. The children of the rich receive the instruction and the training that will open doors to good universities, and later on good or great careers. The children of the poor in most cases will go to bad schools –the only kind available in their chronically under served neighborhoods. Many of them will graduate with meaningless diplomas. Some will drop out of school and have absolutely nothing.

Therefore, it is incorrect to say that the American education system –in its entirety– is in crisis. Indeed, some of it is doing well, or very well. But some of it is in pitiful conditions. And it is the part serving the poor that skews the national averages.

The crisis is all about the poor

So here is the thing. The children of the rich and well to do are doing reasonably well, or well in school. In most cases, the chronic under performers are the poor and the minorities, (often times one and the same).

As Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright put it in their article America’s Mediocre Test Scores, (EducationNext, Winter 2016), it is an established fact that the poor do much worse in school. And the problem is not that lack of income impairs their ability to learn. The problem is that poverty in America very often comes along with homes where there is alcohol and drug abuse; or single parent households, child abuse, crime, and a lot more. In other words, poverty in many cases creates an environment that is truly toxic for young people who would need to concentrate on their studies.

“Why do kids from low-income families –write Petrilli and Wright– tend to score so much lower on average than their more-affluent peers? Is it something about poverty itself, that is, a lack of financial resources in the family? This is likely the case, as financial stress can create “toxic” conditions in the home and also make it difficult (if not impossible) for parents to afford the tutoring, educational games, summer camps, after school activities, and other educational experiences that middle-class and upper-middle-class students take for granted (and that almost surely boost their achievement).”

“But it’s not just about money –they continue– Poverty is associated with a host of other social ills that have a negative impact on learning. For instance, children in poverty are much more likely to be living in single-parent families headed by young, poorly educated mothers. Poverty is also associated with higher rates of alcoholism and other substance abuse in the home; greater incidence of child abuse and neglect; and heightened family involvement in the criminal justice system. [Bold added]. All of these are well-known “risk factors” that are associated with lower test scores as well as with a greater likelihood of dropping out of high school.”

Vicious cycle: poverty begets poverty 

So, you get the picture. Children who live in poverty don’t do well in school. In part,  this is due to the fact that at home there is no supporting system that encourages them to do their home work and do their best in school. Their parents are often uneducated. There are no books in the house. There are no conducive after school activities. No theater, and no trips to the local museum. On top of that, most of the poor tend to be African-Americans or Latinos. Belonging to these ethnic minorities already places them at a disadvantage in a still racially divided society.

All in all, being a minority and poor is the kiss of death for most children when it comes to having a fair shot at a better life. For most of them, “upward mobility” is a dream.

To make it worse, public schools in poor neighborhoods tend to be of lower quality when compared to those in rich areas. Which is to say that in America today the family you are born to and the neighborhood you live in is probably the single best predictor of future academic proficiency and life time career and economic achievement.

Birth is destiny 

Put it differently, just like in many poor countries, and just like in Europe prior to the industrial revolution and the diffusion of democracy, in today’s America “birth is destiny”. Where you are born and grow up and the income and level of education of your parents in most cases determine what you will become as an adult. This is truly horrible. This is America. As a society, we should be able to do better than this. Much better.

Charter Schools can help

This does not mean that all poor and minority children are totally neglected by their families. Indeed the whole Charter Schools movement, and its popularity, is about giving poor kids living in poor and under served neighborhoods –kids who otherwise can only enroll in mediocre or failing public schools– a choice. Not all Charter Schools are great. But many are by far better than what the public education system offers in poor neighborhoods.

At least some parents of poor children, quite often themselves people with little education, realize that a better education will give their children a shot at a better life. So much so that the best Charter Schools are literally under assault by low income and minority parents who desperately try to get their children enrolled. In order to give everybody equal chances, Charter Schools hold admission lotteries. If your number is drawn, you are the lucky one. You get in. For all the others there is the grim alternative of a mediocre or failing public school.

Winning the lottery 

Now, think about it. This is America. Once upon a time “The Land of Opportunity”. And yet, in this enchanted place where –we are told– all people are truly free to be whatever they want to be, the future of a poor child depends –literally– on winning a lottery. The winners get to go to a good Charter School; a school with good teachers who will prepare them for a life of higher achievements: college, good training, and a good job.

A good education for every one

All the others, well all the others were just not lucky enough to get in. You see, they did not win the lottery.

This is a national disgrace. In the United States of America we should be able to offer all children, regardless of income, background or race, a good education; so that all of them would have the intellectual tools and skills to engage in our society, and have a shot at good lives in this fiercely competitive global economy.

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One comment on “The Tragedy Of The Uneducated Poor in America
  1. carissimo paolo, ho letto questo articolo e quello sull’esito delle elezioni di novembre. trovo entrambi notevoli per chiarezza concettuale, puntualità nell’esposizione dei fatti e giudizio politico.
    con grande piacere ti ho (ri) scoperto nella tua pubblicazione on line.
    profitto del commento per farti i più cordiali auguri per l’anno iniziato. sono sempre a levico e non ho nessuna nostalgia di livorno. ospite di mio figlio vladimiro sono stato due settimane nella caotica ma vibrant new york. solo rammarico, l’età. ti stupirai, non so, ma sono entrato nell’ttantesimo anno d’età e ho da pochi giorni celebrato le nozze d’oro con giovanna.
    un abbraccio,
    PS hai fatto un quadro della disparità sociale profonda che segna questo pur grande paese. il tuo articolo mi ha fatto venire in mente un seriale importante americano: The wire. una denuncia allarmante di un degrado che investe la minoranza nera e i suburbi in cui vive. Mi ha colpito la parola che hai usato: “tossico”, per definire l’ambiente e il suo impatto sugli individui che ci vivono.

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