Sunday, February 13, 2011

Educational Performance, Culture and Poverty

It is difficult to dispute that there is a consistent, international correlation between poverty and reduced educational performance. There's plenty of data to support a causative effect - impoverished parents are less likely to have previously achieved academic success, even to the point of obtaining a high school diploma. The small children of impoverished families are, by comparison to middle and upper class families, much more likely to be intellectually understimulated and to have much smaller vocabularies. I have some sympathy for this argument:
The biggest barrier to educational achievement today is not any of the things the media talk endlessly about: poorly prepared teachers, badly run schools, too many tests, low standards. It’s child poverty—which, like poverty in general, has just dropped out of the discourse.
But what does that mean? You'll probably get very different answers from Al Sharpton and Bill Cosby. But I don't believe that you have to point your finger at the poor to identify the problem: On the whole, our nation isn't particularly serious about educational achievement.

During the years followingWorld War II, the U.K. poured money into a system of grammar schools, channeling kids deemed to have strong academic potential into strict, academically focused schools based upon tests administered at age 11. This system was not perfect - it channeled a lot of kids who would have fared well on an academic track into a vocational track, and it pushed a lot of kids from working class families into academic programs that weren't necessarily a good fit. But that's how you ended up with working class kids from Cumbria getting Oxbridge Ph.D.'s, despite their parents' relatively low educational background and income. But you would be hard pressed to find among the parents the same sort of cavalier attitude toward education that exists not just among "the poor", but across much of modern society. When parents perceive education as a way out of poverty, and push their kids to succeed to the best of their ability, they diminish the impact of their own lack of means or educational achievement.

Writing for The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley has attempted to demonstrate that our nation's problem with education runs deeper than poverty:
We’ve known for some time how this story ends nationwide: only 6 percent of U.S. students perform at the advanced-proficiency level in math, a share that lags behind kids in some 30 other countries, from the United Kingdom to Taiwan. But what happens when we break down the results? Do any individual U.S. states wind up near the top?

Incredibly, no. Even if we treat each state as its own country, not a single one makes it into the top dozen contenders on the list. The best performer is Massachusetts, ringing in at No. 17. Minnesota also makes it into the upper-middle tier, followed by Vermont, New Jersey, and Washington. And down it goes from there, all the way to Mississippi, whose students—by this measure at least—might as well be attending school in Thailand or Serbia.

* * *

How would our states do if we looked just at the white kids performing at high levels—kids who are not, generally speaking, subject to language barriers or racial discrimination? Or if we looked just at kids with at least one college-educated parent?

As it turned out, even these relatively privileged students do not compete favorably with average students in other well-off countries. On a percentage basis, New York state has fewer high performers among white kids than Poland has among kids overall. In Illinois, the percentage of kids with a college-educated parent who are highly skilled at math is lower than the percentage of such kids among all students in Iceland, France, Estonia, and Sweden.
Seriously, we live in a nation in which parents are horrified by the idea that their kids might be held back a year in school due to their inability to keep up with their peers in class, but in which large swaths of the population will happily withhold their kids from school for a year so as to give them an advantage in size and coordination by the time they are participating in high school sports. If you're looking at academics, high schools are not high pressure environments for academically capable kids - but a high school culture that's focused on sports and social events can be extremely awkward for a kid denounced as a "geek", "nerd" or "egghead". It can be socially awkward to consistently know the correct answers when called in in class. And as we've encouraged more and more kids to go to college, that culture has percolated up into undergraduate programs.

Ripley's article suggests that our "smart kids can take care of themselves" attitude, academic rigor doesn't really matter because the best students can figure things out for themselves, is misplaced. Smart kids here do okay, but they do better in other nations. Is that "the end of the world"? Of course not. Many of those kids will go on to college, find their groove, and more than make up for the lack of rigor they experienced in high school. And college is not a magic bullet - there are plenty of successful people who dropped out of college or didn't attend college. There's also a balance to be reached between the type of "teach to the test" environment being forced on inner city schools (and to a significant degree on schools outside of the inner cities) and a flexible learning environment that fosters intellectual creativity and growth. U.S. graduates, whatever their faults, have done well in business and industry as compared to top performers from academically rigid schools in other nations.

But, apologies for the cliché, the world is changing. (It's always changing, and it always will continue to change.) I'm not sure that we have the luxury to allow high school and, increasingly, four year colleges continue to be a place to socialize and "find yourself". Fundamentally, they're supposed to be academic institutions. Even to the extent that many parents are content to revel in their children's performance on a sports team or enjoy the vicarious thrill of their child's popularity, I think schools owe serious students a better opportunity for serious study.

When we talk about the poor, we often speak in patronizing tones about "role models", and often as if Dennis Rodman's latest relapse will cause the average inner city teen to give up on his academic dreams. But the role models that make the most difference in a child's life aren't celebrities, and to the extent that celebrities are role models they should largely be relegated to the fantasy world. The most important role models are the adults that children encounter on a daily basis, starting with their own parents. No celebrity lecture on "the importance of education" is going to resonate as much as the same conviction, heard and felt on a daily basis, from your parents and community. It's perfectly fair for middle class America to say to much of the inner city, "Education is the best way out of poverty, so you should take education more seriously." But it's also perfectly fair to say that the failure to take education seriously is also an issue in many middle and upper class homes and schools.

1 comment:

  1. This subject also raises issues of relative poverty, as the 'middle class' in much of the world lives a lifestyle that in the U.S. would be deemed impoverished. If it were simply a matter of money we should see performance issues linked to absolute, not relative, poverty.