Sunday, May 29, 2011

Blaming The Poor

"Poverty and Wealth", William Powell Frith
    Apparently Michael Bloomberg put his foot in his mouth recently, commenting on public opposition to the closure of 22 poor-performing schools:
“Unfortunately there are some parents who just come from — they never had a formal education, and they don’t understand the value of education....
The old Norman Rockwell family is gone.”
    Deborah Meier took umbrage, finding his words an extension of a long tradition of blaming the poor for their problems:
    Bloomberg got properly chastised for these words, but they get at the heart of the matter. We have a heritage of disrespect for the poor. Either they don't know what they're doing or they deserve what they get. (While we insist on bragging about our rags-to-riches family histories to prove the latter.)....
    It wasn't and isn't the poor who, ala Bloomberg, failed to "value" education. It was those with far more power and resources who made the rules that kept them out. It took an enormous battle, led by labor unions and do-gooders, on behalf of our natural thirst for knowledge and self-respect. How dare the elite question the value others placed on getting a good education for their children?  But it is part of our shared history to do so.

    I think this is a very important discussion.  I've taught poor kids for a number of years, both at the kindergarten and high school level.  There is definitely a kernel of truth to what Bloomberg was saying.  We have a hard time discussing class in America for a variety of reasons, but it is at the core of education and what proper reform should be about.

    "The poor" are not monolithic.  Like any group, they are a diverse set of cultures and circumstances.  I think the best way to look at class is through the human/social capital model, which essentially measures agency.   So you can factor in everything from parent education, to in utero toxicology, family salary, neighborhood resources, ethnicity, etc.

    My students, most of them poor, have come from a spectrum of circumstances - some from families with a lot of substance abuse, some with little English, some with histories of mental illness, some with single mothers who were teenagers, etc.  Others had two parents who worked multiple jobs to pay the bills.  Some had college degrees in Mexico.  Some were read to every night, others had practically never seen a pencil.

    Yet don't people "choose" their actions?  I always find this to be the philosophical nut of the issue.  What does "choice" mean.  Does a teenage girl "choose" to get pregnant, or not do her work in class?  The answer is yes and no.  She does choose, but her choice is limited by multiple parameters, most of them established by competing emotional, behavioral, and cognitive experiences she has had in her life.  This is why there is "good" parenting.  Human development is a process of learning, and we learn to make the choices we do.  Can they still be called choices?  Yes and no.

    I currently teach at a continuation high school and my students have very limited abilities to make good choices.  Over the course of the year, most are using drugs.  Many of the girls will get pregnant (the fathers nowhere to be found).  Many of the boys will get arrested for dealing or fighting.  I have designed an independent elective course on family and parenting.  The students find it fascinating.  Many of them remark that it is very different than how they were raised.  (This is actually backed up by a lot of research).  My hope is that they will do better than their parents did.

    In the end, all parents want their children to be successful.  They just don't always know how.  Many poor parents do, and whether it is through proper discipline, or applying to a charter school or moving out of the neighborhood, they manage to help their children escape poverty.  Despite lacking access to health care, not having time to be there for them, etc. , they have enough "capital" to pass on to their children.

But other parents, who also want their children to succeed, simply don't know how to do it.  They don't know how to properly discipline their children, they don't have a very large vocabulary themselves, or they don't know how to properly emphasize academics - likely not having had very good academic experiences themselves.  The of course, you have the substance abusers, absent fathers, etc.  (I've stopped counting the number of my students whose parents are on or were on meth).

    Any problem in these families is going to be amplified by a neighborhood with a much higher rate of dysfunction.  You then take all the children in the community and put them in a schoolhouse and you then have multiple students in every class coming from very dysfunctional households.

    In the end, whether or not the poor "know" the value of education, the fact is that they don't have the value of education - for any of the reasons I discussed above.  As a society, with a system of property and rent that we do, the poor are going to wind up in distinct neighborhoods, scaled according to access to human/social capital.  Each of us has "choice", but only to the degree that we have received these forms of capital, and thus have agency in our lives.  Public school are the bedrock of the American concept of liberty, in that they try and give each citizen fair access to the agency he or she will need to be successful in life.

    Education reform has become so important because society is waking up to the fact that schools such an important role in leveling the playing field, instilling agency, and thus providing access to freedom to all.  Yet we have slammed right up against the reality that this is not an easy task.  We need to come to terms with the fact that we are asking for a complete transformation of class and power structures that have existed for centuries.  We are going to have to find a way of providing public education that is in line with this mission, while not prohibitively expensive, yet realistic in its goals.  Neither our society, nor capitalism, nor humanity, will ever be perfect.  Yet we can do a lot more than we are currently doing.  

    We can “blame” the poor and wait around for them to “help themselves”.  Or we can recognize the injustice of the structural problems – cultural, economic, etc. – they face and put in place a system of interventions that work.  The question should never be existential.  This is the mission of public education.  Of course it is a monumental task.  It is about nothing more than liberty – the central question of our species since the dawn of time.

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