The real problem of U.S. public schools

I am tired of reading about edreform in the news focusing on failing schools, merit pay, test scores, school of choice, bad teachers, etc. It is time that politicians and “reformers” recognize the huge elephant in the room of education reform-poverty.

by Shavar Ross 

First go read Mel Riddile’s excellent post about poverty’s effects on PISA  Here is evidence that all of our schools are not failing, but the real problem in this country is poverty. Our best schools compare favorably with the top countries of the world. (By the way I personally could care less about these test scores, but since everyone else uses them to make points-here you go).

Next University of Texas psychologists release a study about poverty and genetic potential. Summarized they found that 50% of the progress of wealthy children can be attributed to genetics. No, they are not smarter than poor children, but they reach their genetic potential because of extra resources and opportunities. Children of poverty do not reach their potential.

Finally a New York Times piece by Charles Blow states that

      According to the National Center for Children in Poverty,
      42 percent of American children live in low-income homes 
      and about a fifth live in poverty. It gets worse.  The number
     of children living in poverty has risen 33 percent since 2000.
     For perspective, the child population of the country over all
     increased by only about 3 percent over that time. And, 
     according to a 2007 Unicef report on child povertythe U.S. 
     ranked last among 24 wealthy countries.

My thoughts are that this is not any new information. We know that socio-economic is the most important factor for school success. We know that our poor schools in rural and urban areas are the schools with the most students who struggle and drop out. Of course we need to take every means necessary to improve these schools.

But lets stop dogging public education non-stop in the media. Let’s stop portraying teachers as lazy and worthless. Let’s stop acting like the entire system is broken when we have thousands of successful schools and millions of successful students. Let’s stop treating public education as both the cause and solution of our economic problems.

I for one am appalled that 1 in 5 children in this country live in poverty. 1 in 5! It is an embarrassment that we have the highest poverty rate of developed nations. I will not pretend to have all of the answers to end poverty, but let’s acknowledge it as the real problem of inequity in this country.

Let’s fix that problem and quit blaming public schools and teachers.

Hat tip to Bill Ferriter for the Charles Blow link.

9 thoughts on “The real problem of U.S. public schools

  1. Anonymous

    Michael, not to deny the issue, and I think we see things pretty much the same way… but is the Canadian Education system in the same state as the
    American, and is the division of wealth much different? How could we explain this?

  2. concretekax

    I will not pretend to be an expert on Canada so I will leave that to Canadians to answer. If you looked at the charts on Mel’s post. Canada has 13.6% poverty compared to the U.S’s 21.7%. Canada had a fairly high score compared to nations with the same percentage of poverty.

    I am not an expert who can explain the causes of differences of poverty rates. I would have my opinionated guesses with no facts to back them up 🙂

    I am not saying we should not make radical changes to public schools-more student centered for example. But I am tired of them being blamed and wholesale labeled ineffective.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Mike,

    As far as the Canada comparisons go, I think there are two factors worth considering:

    1. Canada’s population is dwarfed by the population of the US: One of the things that I hate about international comparisons is when population sizes are left out of the conversation.

    Denmark is one of the examples I know best simply because I’ve traveled there often. They’ve got a GREAT social welfare system that I really admire and wish we had in the US.

    They’ve also got 9 million people—the size of North Carolina.

    There’s no way we could scale Denmark’s reforms effectively in a country like ours just because we’re huge. There’s advantages in being small because you can be more nimble in your attempts to drive change.

    2. Canada is also more homogeneous than we are as a population—both economically, as you’ve pointed out—but also culturally.

    There’s something to be said for that. Homogeneity helps with decision-making. There’s less discord in homogeneous nations because there are more shared customs, cultures and traditions.

    Homogeneity also means that there are fewer challenges that need to be addressed.

    When you look at poverty in the US, there are tons of factors outside of economics that make it difficult to succeed. There are language barriers that need to be addressed. There are different cultural perceptions towards schools and the role that parents should play in a child’s education.

    Not to downplay poverty in Canada—I hate poverty wherever it happens to be—but my guess (and it’s only a guess) is that attacking poverty and its impact on education in Canada is probably a more straightforward process than it is in a nation like ours where diversity presents additional cultural challenges.

    Any of this make sense?

    PS: If you’re really interested in learning more about the impact that poverty has on achievement in schools, check this book out:

    It’s amazing.

  4. gasstationwithoutpumps

    I agree that poverty is the biggest obstacle to good education. Unfortunately, for years teachers and politicians have pushed education as the route out of poverty, and it hasn’t worked as they claimed it would. Thus there is some skepticism about claims about education and poverty.

    Incidentally, your statement about genetics makes no sense to me. “Summarized they found that 50% of the progress of wealthy children can be attributed to genetics. No, they are not smarter than poor children, but they reach their genetic potential because of extra resources and opportunities. Children of poverty do not reach their potential.” You start by saying that genetics is 50% and then saying that it is all environment. You can’t have it both ways. I think that there is a way of giving appropriate weight to both genetics and environment, but this statement was not there.

  5. Tom R. Chambers

    There’s a critical need for different viewpoints and consequent actions to cater to youngsters … our students … in today’s world.

    The one thing that adds, in my opinion, to the “very real” notion that the educational system is failing the kids is the fact that the process of teaching/training students at the college and university level to be educators is INCESTUOUS. And when I say this, I mean … using a dictionary definition … “excessively close and resistant to outside influence.”

    The “blinders” have been on for generations, and the “newbie” teachers with their education degrees in hand walk into classrooms at their various school systems to apply the subject matter within the constraints that their professors used with them … WRONG, and BORING unless the newbie has innate capacity for teaching, which would lead that teacher to make changes/”amends” in his/her classroom.

    What students need is good, old-fashioned attention via software/hardware, in other words, teachers need to devote themselves to their students like mine did with me 50-55 years ago, but today via technology as it relates to core subject areas. And the only way today’s teachers can do this is to master the software/hardware in combination with conceptualization of core-subject projects to teach the students how to use this technology to take control of their assignments for a better learning curve.

    The key is “equipping”, or training teachers to use software/hardware so they will be able to turn around, and teach the same software/hardware to their students so they [students] can ENGAGE to take control of the learning process … as it pertains to core subject-relevant projects … to learn, retain, and produce product via this technology. It’s not about teachers “throwing” information at the students in high tech fashion, it’s about the students utilizing the technology for a higher learning curve.

    As I’ve said in other blogs, the process/system needs a “fix” from the outside. I’ll shamelessly use me, and my approach as an example. First of all, I didn’t take education classes to be a teacher when I was in college. The profession of teaching was the farthest thing from my mind at the time [1965 – 1969]. Over the past 40 years I’ve moved through scientific research, medical media, media/communications, the Arts, public programming, community development, youth development, and workshop teaching.

    I’m self-taught with hardware/software, and I’m known internationally as a Digital/New Media artist. I’ve taught the Digital Arts at the university level in China, and at the National Institute of Design in India. 

When I returned to the States in 2007, I walked into a charter middle school looking for a Technology/Arts teaching position, and the administration hired me based on my “outside” experience. I’ve had an impact on the student population because of my 40-year work experience, and the kind of person I am. I’ve been called a “natural” teacher at my school. But what’s important is the fact that I didn’t walk into the classroom with “Educational System” constraints, and I wasn’t wearing “blinders”. 

    My middle school students’ projects/accomplishments: 

    My university students’ projects/accomplishments: 

    My workshop proposal … “Digital Art: Visualizations of Core Subject Content for Greater Understanding and Retention” … has been accepted for the ISTE [International Society of Technology for Education] 2011 conference in Philadelphia this June.

  6. concretekax

    Thanks for weighing in Bill,

    I agree with both of your points. Again I am not an expert on Canada but am guessing that they have more rural, homogeneous communities than the U.S. Also I know that one of their largest minority groups is Chinese, who typically score highly on tests than any other group.

    I spent two years teaching English in China, mostly to adults looking to immigrate to Toronto or Vancouver. Most of the Chinese who make it out of the country are the cream of the crop.

    gas station without pumps,

    I too find it a bit confusing. Check the link back to the article to clarify. My understanding is that wealthy students tend to reach their natural (genetic) potential. This accounts for 50% of their abilities. The reason is because of extra opportunities and experiences afforded them.

    Children in poverty do not develop fully or barely at all their genetic abilities because of a lack of resources. The difference is not in the genetics, but in the opportunities to develop.

    In my experience this makes alot of sense. I have had many underperforming and even failing students who are obviously very intelligent but do not apply themselves. Often they do not have the support structure at home that values education.

  7. concretekax

    Thanks for the comment Tom. It originally got caught in the spam filter 🙁

    I agree that “real world” experience is valuable to a teacher. I was a concrete construction worker and taught English in China before enrolling in ed. school. Both of those experiences taught me valuable lessons for the classroom.

    I don’t know if you are a “natural” teacher or just a self-taught one. There are many paths to becoming an excellent teacher and life experience is one great option.

    Colleges of ed. reflect education in general and are slow and resistant to change. I believe that some of them are starting to change based on some of the excellent professors I know on Twitter and through blogs. It will be a process and take time before we see systematic change.

    The point I wanted to make here is that education is being used as a scapegoat for the problem of poverty in the United States.

  8. Lacey

    I think we are missing a big point here and simply blaming the government or people for their poverty. We are failing to see that financial poverty is different from information and intelligence poverty. From personal family experience of poverty in my past and currently living below the poverty line does not mean that people are doomed to poverty.
    I grew up in poverty and unlike other students I see today who are living in poverty I never shopped at a new store for clothes. I was a garage sale child at best and that’s when the hand-me down’s were no longer because they didn’t last past my older sister. We received one gift for birthdays and two for Christmas. All the other money was saved so that we could eat and take trips. Now this is a dichotomy we don’t often see in poverty but it’s the truth. May parents wanted us to travel in-spite of our poverty so that we could see the world was bigger than our current circumstances. I am amazed at what my parents did and it boggles my mind to this day but I am thankful that they were willing to skimp on every day things to give me the opportunity to see Yellowstone at age 5, our nation’s capital at age 8 and the New England states at age 12.
    My 3 year old niece currently lives in poverty because her father is a full time PhD student but her educational opportunities in and outside the home are great! How many three year olds do you know that use the word phosphorescent correctly. I didn’t know what the word was or meant until she told me.
    These are unique cases and I believe my family based off of our experiences growing up learned how to live in poverty successfully so that the education system would not be blamed for our deficits not the government expected to pay for our lives.

  9. concretekax

    @Lacey First of all thanks for sharing such personal examples. Second it is not my intent to “blame the government or the people for their poverty.”

    Poverty is a complex problem with many causes. I do agree that their are different types of poverty and that some people who have a low income have other structures of support such as extended family or education. That is why it is usually referred to as socio-economic because it involves more than just income. I also stated that I do not pretend to have the solutions to poverty because it is a very complex issue.

    My point in this post is not to blame poverty, but to call out the government and ed-reformers who are blaming schools for not educating students who have many other needs outside of school that should be addressed.

    I have heard over and over again that the number one factor at school for student success is teachers. That is true. But the number one factor overall (including inside and outside of school factors) for determining student success is socio-economic level. So I suggest our government spend less time blaming public education and more time helping people find an acceptable level of living.

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