Friday, December 7, 2012


Map of Poverty (red) by location in San Francisco
The New York Times reports that a number of school districts across the country are moving ahead with plans to extend the school calendar, the reasoning being that poor kids need extra time in school to catch up with their middle class peers.

I'm not necessarily opposed to this in theory.  But I was struck by a line in the piece that is emblematic of current thinking in education, which tends to overlook the profound impact of family and peer interaction on cognitive and behavioral norms.  Advocates of extended school days claim, the author writes, that
"poor students tend to have less structured time outside school, without the privilege of classes and extracurricular activities that middle-class and affluent children frequently enjoy."
While this is generally true, these things have little to do with the cause of the achievement gap.  To the extent that we emphasize these particular inequalities in societal capital, we miss more salient inequalities, such as the effects of things like family stress (due to any number of problems associated with poverty, such as lack of access to health care, job issues, etc.), poor parenting, lack of parental education resulting in diminished cognitive and vocabulary development. 

We also miss what is maybe one of the most powerful drivers of the achievement gap, which is the effect of concentrated poverty, in which those with the least societal capital are segregated into geographic and social concentrations.  Neighborhood class segregation means schools become highly segregated by class, and a variety of social norms become prevalent. 

This is all, of course, a function of our capitalist system wherein property markets reflect class divisions.  It is a system that isn't going away any time soon.  Apart from experiments in bussing that might correct for class segregation, schools will likely be segregated for the foreseable future.  Extended school days have their benefits, as do the provision of extra-curricular activities for poor children.  But we must not fool ourselves into thinking that half-measures such as these are anywhere sufficient to remedy what are profoundly larger inequalities that result in an oppressive dynamic across classes that perpetuate social inequality of societal capital formation lasting not only for lifetimes of students but across generations. 

A proper assessment of student need in emotional, cognitive, health, and relational domains is needed.  From there, we can build a system of interventions that is truly appropriate to the task of rectifying the deeper inequalities in societal capital that result from a capitalist system which is in large part driven by the exploitation of these inequalities.

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