Monday, June 01, 2015

Poverty and Lack of Opportunity threaten the American Dream

This from the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education newsletter (via email):
Robert Putnam's seminal 2000 book, Bowling Alone, documented the growing fragmentation of American society, and the dangers to a democracy when its residents no longer interact regularly with people who have different political, economic, and cultural perspectives. Fifteen years later, Putnam’s warnings have come home to roost, as he writes in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis:  
It’s the American dream: get a good education, work hard, buy a house, and achieve prosperity and success. This is the America we believe in—a nation of opportunity, constrained only by ability and effort. But during the last twenty-five years we have seen a disturbing “opportunity gap” emerge. Americans have always believed in equality of opportunity, the idea that all kids, regardless of their family background, should have a decent chance to improve their lot in life. Now, this central tenet of the American dream seems no longer true or at the least, much less true than it was.
A recent commentary for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity shows that the US stands out not only for high rates of general and child poverty. We are also an outlier in how narrowly we define poverty. A “consensual” measure of poverty pioneered in Britain in 1983 and now employed across a range of nations – from wealthy Japan to Bangladesh – “measures poverty using the public’s views on what is an acceptable standard of living in contemporary society.” Based on the majority’s views of life necessities, poverty is defined as the point at which adults lack three or more necessities and children lack two or more, “a level of deprivation at which households are much more likely to experience a range of other significant disadvantages including poor health and serious financial difficulties.” The authors note that, while that standard “has support from all social groups, across classes, gender, age and, importantly, political affiliation,” the US stubbornly clings to an outdated definition laden with value judgments.  

So while “the public endorses the idea that in a wealthy country such as Britain, no child should have to do without a decent minimum of essential clothing, or be prevented from going on a school trip because their parents can’t afford it,” a growing share of children in our even wealthier country grow up in exactly those deprived circumstances. Moreover, many politicians suggest that there is nothing we should do about it.

Indeed, music education, which many of us take for granted, isn’t a given among poor students, since “Music classes are usually cut first when schools reevaluate their budget.” This is especially upsetting given a new study showing that music classes enabled low-income students who would otherwise lose ground in reading to maintain their skill level. As the study protocol illustrates, children in low-income communities must rely on private organizations to fill that critical gap: “Forty-two children between the ages 6 and 9 were recruited from the wait list of the Harmony Project, an organization that offers free music education to children from low-income communities. Children were then randomly placed in a music place or not, with none of the children having previously received music education.”

Last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation looked back on its 25 years of investments in documenting what it means to be a poor child in America.  In 2003, Casey popularized the term “the high cost of being poor,” spurring a host of federal, state, and local policies to address problems from predatory lending to food deserts. Perhaps most critical, the Foundation has provided advocates and policymakers with detailed state-by-state information to advance policies that help families avoid and stay out of poverty. Indeed, Casey President and CEO Patrick McCarthy joined The Hill to “explore policy ideas aimed at expanding opportunity for low-income children and their families -- from early childhood education and children's healthcare, to expanding the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, to strengthening food assistance programs.” Check out the April 29 event summary here.

Finally, educators have weighed in on what education policy would look like if we were to take seriously the need to address these aspects of poverty and their impacts on students and schools. The Education Opportunity Network touts the California Build-and-Support model, and the Opportunity Dashboard advanced by Linda Darling-Hammond, over what it terms our current “test-and-punish” model. Targeted support for teachers is critical if school improvements are to succeed, given the difficult conditions teachers face every day in high-poverty schools, and the resulting low morale and high rates of turnover. In her recent YEP-DC Recess blog, a DCPS elementary school teacher agrees, pointing out Congress’ failure to include teachers in requests for “expert” input, and resulting wrongheaded policy choices.

1 comment:

Bringyoursaddlehome said...

I know this is going to sound ironic coming from an educator, but why do we keep blaming education for the current conditions?

We need to consider what we are basing our "rich getting richer and poor getting poorer" comparison. It wasn't that long ago that we had many more folks dropping out of school before graduation with inconsistent curriculum outcomes. At that time, however, those folks could access decent paying blue collar jobs which would sustain a family and dare I say fulfill the "American Dream". I am a product of those family circumstance where parents without college degrees worked their way up through companies or develop skill sets that allowed them to advance elsewhere in the work force.

Regrettably, many of those blue collar opportunities have been shipped away to other countries and the college educations which our parents thought would bring us higher paid, easier professional careers have instead placed us in jobs that have greater stress, no sense of commitment to employees by the companies that employ us and at wages that (when adjusted for generational inflation) are probably about the same as our parents.

Obviously, our employment environment has changed but not everyone is going to be able to be an entrepreneur working out of their on a computer. Fact is many folks don't want to do that. How can we sell education to students who see teachers with master degrees and above getting compensated for much less than their education and experience should merit. Some see educated parents unemployed, under employed or working at low paying jobs.

The American Dream was based upon opportunity and that just simply isn't there like it used to be. Education can help but it isn't the only solution. Poverty exists everywhere and will continue to exist as long as their is competition for limited resources. We need to stop fooling ourselves with this utopian idea that we can somehow institutionally educate society out of the existence of poverty. Sorry, just tired of education being identified as being the magic bullet for all things.