Gebbe/Flickr
Gebbe/Flickr

After raising her daughters, stay-at-home mother Susan Norwood knew that she wanted to be a teacher. She had spent plenty of time at school while her daughters were students in Brentwood, an affluent Nashville suburb with famously great schools, as a room mother and fundraiser, she even volunteered to work in the library. But after getting her certification and being assigned to one of Nashville’s poorest high schools as an English teacher, she quickly realized there were stark differences between her daughters’ school and her new teaching home.

Many of the school’s classes operated without textbooks for students. Most students simply didn’t to do their homework — and even if they did, Norwood would have been unable to give proper attention to each assignment of her 185 students. And many of her sophomore English students were dealing with a host of problems outside school, from unstable home lives to jailed parents, even undiagnosed health issues.

OUR KIDS by Robert Putnam - Jacket Image“Just yesterday, one of my girls (students) told me she wanted to make up work, because she currently had an F in my class — she just stopped working. She said, ‘I’m having some problems at home,’ ” said Norwood. “She told me she had moved out of the house, she hadn’t seen her mother in two weeks, and she was living with a friend. If you’re having those kinds of problems, doing your vocabulary may not seem important!”

To understand the breadth of the problem, Norwood said, just multiply this girl’s story times most of her students. The notion of being able to help them all becomes overwhelming.

This is life for the majority of American kids whose parents didn’t go to college, says social scientist and Harvard professor Robert Putnam in his new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” This bottom third of poorer students face a widening “opportunity gap” with today’s richer students — the ones whose parents did go to college. Putnam and his team of researchers analyzed decades of research on the habits of richer and poorer families, and found that who your parents are predicts where you will end up much more today than it did several decades ago.

Putnam describes “scissor graphs” showing how, over the last several decades, while richer kids’ reading time with their parents, family dinners, extracurricular activities, and two-parent homes stayed the same or increased, the poorer kids’ decreased. The team found that today the lowest-performing rich kids have a better chance of finishing college than the highest-performing poor kids.

Courtesy of Robert Putnam
Courtesy of Robert Putnam

It wasn’t always this way. In the book, Putnam described going back to his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, to interview all the surviving members of his high school class. He found that in 1950s Ohio, who your parents were mattered much less: Most of his classmates, regardless of the education or economic levels of their parents, achieved more and led better lives than their parents did.

Yet today, the opportunity gap stacks up against poor kids in terms of family instability, cut ties with community institutions, untrustworthy and frightening neighborhoods, and increasing isolation as poor students find they don’t have “air bags” — parents, pastors, coaches, mentors — to cushion life’s blows and help navigate their difficult lives. Putnam argues that, even more than income, the opportunity gap is leaving a third of kids unable to even get on the ladder needed to reach the American Dream.

“The basic story is that these poor kids, they are isolated really from all the major social institutions. Two-thirds of them have only one parent, at most. They come from broken homes — if there was a dad, he’s gone. They basically can’t trust their parents, many of whom are loving but are themselves damaged by something further back in history. Their first line of defenses has been breached,” he said.

Putnam said school becomes an “echo chamber” that amplifies the problems of chaotic lives: It’s not so much what districts do or don’t do nearly as much as what kids bring to school.

“The first thing I see when I look at our evidence, schools themselves contributed very little to this opportunity gap problem,” Putnam said. “We know going to school with other poor kids is bad. There’s a ton of evidence, it’s all clear: Your peers are very important. Why has that changed? We’ve become more socially segregated, and poor kids are going to school more with other poor kids.”

Susan Norwood agrees, and says she sees the chaos played out often. “There are a number of kids at school who’ve had a huge loss in their life without any counseling,” she said. “Last year, I had a girl whose father died in a motorcycle accident. I asked her if she’d talked to her mother about getting counseling. ‘My mother is in jail,’ she said. She’d been living with her grandfather, and they couldn’t afford counseling.’ ”

While there is an on-site counselor at school, counseling is only offered to students with Medicaid. So the school rallied together, and provided a counselor to the girl over the summer.

 Well connected but still alone

According to Putnam’s research, the digital divide has morphed: Rich kids and poor kids now have equal access to the Internet, but use it in different ways. Surrounded by adults to guide them, richer kids use the Internet in what he calls a “mobility-enhancing way,” such as comparing colleges and doing research for a term paper. Poor kids tend to use the Internet for entertainment and more casual interaction.

But Putnam is quick to point out that there’s a more complex layer to how poor kids use the Internet: Their online interactions can highlight how isolated they are. Putnam said his team of researchers is still connected to many of the kids they interviewed for the book through Facebook, and they can see, in real time, how they use the Internet.

One person they interviewed for the book, “David” (a pseudonym), recently posted something to his Facebook wall that Putnam describes as “clearly a cry for help.” In the post, David says how hard he’s working, how he’s taking care of his younger step-siblings, and that “he’s done” with it all. To Putnam’s horror, none of David’s Facebook friends reached out and left a message in response to his post, either to encourage him, or tell him he would get through it, or ask to meet him or help him.”Even though they are connecting in some way, it’s clear that they’re not connecting. When David posted his message, no one came on and said, ‘c’mon, let’s get together,’ – that’s what happens if you have real social networks.”

“They [poor kids] do have other friends with whom they interact,” on the Internet, he said, “but even that setting shows how isolated they are. The messages are just heart-rending.”

Courtesy of Robert Putnam
Courtesy of Robert Putnam

What can schools do?

Susan Norwood isn’t sure if her school can help get their 2,300 students out of poverty, into college and on to something better than their splintered lives — at least not without more help than she’s receiving now.

Though Norwood and colleagues have been told that 60 percent of English students must pass the state test, the school projects only 29 percent will pass. Norwood teaches English and literature and doesn’t have a single set of books to give out to her students, instead relying mostly on handouts and public domain short stories students can download and read on their phones. (She does have one set of literature and grammar books for students to use in class, but only Honors students are allowed to check them out and bring them home.) From the district, she received $300 to purchase all the supplies needed for 185 students for the entire year.

Norwood said nearly everything about the way her students are schooled — from the lack of books to the class sizes to their personal problems — is so different from the education her daughters got in Brentwood that they almost can’t be compared. Even in such bleak circumstances, though, bright spots do occur. She found out recently that one of her honors students had spent a year sleeping on a couch in his father’s one-bedroom with five other people when his mother went to jail, and kept his grades up.

Putnam is brimming with hope. And while his book offers ideas for solutions — Putnam favors investing in early childhood education, community-school partnerships to coordinate social services, and programs to offer more AP and advanced classes to low-income schools, among others — he said one of the biggest “solutions” is for people in the upper third to simply realize that the opportunity ladder is broken, and they may not be seeing it.

“We have become much more segregated in social-class terms, and are less likely to live near others from a different class background,” he said. “So we’re less likely to meet someone at school, or church, or even the family reunion, that’s from a different class.”

He implores society to start looking beyond their own families and thinking of kids — all of them — as “our kids.”

“As Americans, historically we’ve wanted [public schools] to create a level playing field. Schools must be part of the solution. The facts are consistent. We shouldn’t blame teachers or districts. They’re just dealing with what they’ve been given. Districts don’t decide their own boundaries, but saying that doesn’t absolve us from how schools can help,” he said. “Something must be done.”

  • deserteacher

    This article hits on the greatest questions for the future of America–educational equity. Will our democracy level the playing field for all our young citizens? Will the most able adults join the educational fields to accomplish this? Will America dismiss the bias against the poor to claim the nation’s greatest resource, the next generation? Can Americans choose to financially support equalizing the digital divide?

    • Kathleen Sullivan

      It’s not a matter of choice anymore. We must.

    • Guest

      First of all, this article isn’t exactly earth shattering; it doesn’t point out anything that wasn’t already known by a good deal of the American public. Secondly, your “democracy” sounds more like communism. Yes, in an ideal world all kids should be given a fair and equal shot at achieving success and, if there were enough extra money to spend, it should be put into those schools and communities that need it most. But, unfortunately, there just isn’t enough money to just throw around to address all of the problems. That ideal world doesn’t exist and it never will. Sorry, but that’s the truth. It’s a cruel, cruel world. And taxing people more isn’t the answer. The fact of the matter is, and I know I’ll get backlash over this, the root of the problem is the vast majority of these kids come from broken homes. While this article touches on that, that’s clearly the issue that needs to be addressed most. You can pump as much money as you want into schools, but if parents don’t inculcate the values of hard work and responsibility into their kids, any money will have a neglible impact. The nuclear family is a dying breed and, unless kids have a stable home environment, they’ll always be more prone to failure. I didn’t grow up in poverty, but my father grew up piss poor. His parents worked multiple jobs to put food on the table and put a roof over his head. Times were rough, but my grandparents stayed together and, as he always told me growing up, they were there to support and push him to excel in all of his endeavors. As my parents did for me. That’s what these kids need–a supportive family structure. It doesn’t guarantee success, but it most definitely sets them up for it. Until that changes, and it likely won’t, as statistics indicate more and more Americans aren’t getting married and raising their kids together, this problem isn’t going to get much better. Throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution, and quite frankly, I’m sick of this discussion. Also, not everyone needs to go to college, which is an entirely different subject altogether. We need blue collar workers. There just aren’t enough white collar jobs out there. Again, a harsh reality that no one wants to admit. In fact, one of the reasons college is so expensive is because of the “I have to go to college to be successful” mentality. Bull. Not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer. The plain and simple truth is this: there will always be wealthy and poor, but, in either case, those kids without a strong family backbone are more likely to fail and get into troublesome activity. I’m more than happy to lend a hand to those in need, but let’s start by addressing the origin of the problem–the homes these kids are coming from. I don’t claim to have the answer to that problem, but it starts in changing the values in the communities that these kids come from.

      • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

        Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I came from the same background as you did.

        My parents always knew where I was and who I was with. They made sure my homework was done. They attended all the meetings with my teachers. They attended every after school activity I was ever in. When I was little they support my desire to be in dance and scouting. They taught me hard work, responsibility, integrity, honesty, kindness, determination, and caring for others. And they taught me pride and the important of self-confidence. They worked hard and they were successful but what they gave me most could not be bought with money. As a matter of fact, what they gave me could have been given just the same if they were dirt poor.

        Raising independent children is a lot of work. It takes commitment and sacrifice. Too few people today are willing to do that. Too many distractions, drugs, alcohol, and other activities to make raising their offspring a priority….and all of society suffers. Money is not the problem!

      • deserteacher

        I agree with you. Family and school together. I lost count of the number of meetings I led as a Special Education teacher building educational outcomes with parents and teachers when in a stressed District. The kids had every disadvantage. But one day at a time, with basic teaching methods, systematic support and communication–we saw progress and hope. This is not theory to me–we (family and school) gave the kids tools and optimism. It’s not socialism, its people. I had a chance at education not because of a family that could send me to college–but because Uncle Ronny did (Gov. Ronald Reagan and his State Scholarship Program.) I don’t think anyone ever called Reagan a Communist! I gladly pay taxes to help kids who want a chance as I did. California gambled on sending me to college, the Federal government gave me a Paul Douglas Scholarship–I hope my teaching career was a good return on their investment. All kids deserve the chance to be included–to be brilliant. We can do this for them and ourselves.

  • Dreamer

    All public schools should received equally from the government regardless where they are located, what neighborhood, what county, what state. All public school should have the same resources that is why they are public! The way the system is laid out does create all the inequalities in education.

    • Labyrinthia

      Children in poverty need more funding, though. They need the school to provide a lot- tutoring, free extracurricular activities, social support, medical care, a place to go in the summer, meals, etc, etc. We have to be willing to accept this, and fund this. Low poverty rate schools often can meet the needs of their impoverished students, since there are fewer of them. They can wave the basketball fee, few teachers can volunteer to tutor after school, the school nurse can spend extra time checking up on the student, some canned goods from the food pantry can be slipped into a backpack, etc. The school can rally around the child and help them succeed.

      When every child needs that help, you need the funding to go up. A lot. Possibly doubling or tripling the amount spent, just to get those kids on a level playing field with wealthier students.

      There are schools that do this- they’re called community schools. The school buildings are often open six, seven days a week, often for as many as twelve hours a day. They’ll have clinics and counseling centers being run out of the school. They’ll feed the kids three meals a day and send them home with a backpack full of food on the weekends. Their libraries will be full of books and computers, with adults available to help with homework. Gyms and recreation centers will be open after school for any kid who needs to let off steam.

      These schools are pretty rare finds, but whenever you hear a story about an extraordinary charter school or ‘turn around’ school, it’s often because they’ve flipped to this model. It’s not fair to compare them to traditional public schools, but they can show us the amount of resources we need to be putting into ‘bridging the gap’.

      • Kathleen Sullivan

        Well said.

      • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

        What you described is not a school. It’s an orphanage. Many of these kids would be better off if they never met their drug and alcohol addicted parents.

        A child that comes from a couple that loves each other, works to put food on the table, reads to the child, plays ball, takes them on walks, talks to them every day, hugs them and encourages them is going to grow up and have a better life even if they never had a cell phone, designer jeans, or a brand new bicycle. They will grow up with values and know how to work for things.

        America changed its course with all the handouts that started years ago. We have created a society of people who see no need to want to do better or live better. They find it just fine to sit around on drugs or drunk having sex and cashing the government checks.

        Family values is what makes all the difference!

    • Estarianne

      So you advocate widening the gap. This attitude is exactly why this stuff is happening. Did the cry to treat all children as our own not spur even a bit of compassion?

      My kids’ public school in an affluent area had multiple parent volunteers for every class at any given time. The PTO purchased all of the big ticket items- playground equipment, theater equipment, field trips.

      So of course the school had new textbooks and well repaired classrooms. They didn’t have to pay teachers aides or worry about major expenditures. And all of the kids showed up to kindergarten with basic skills and ready to learn.

      By contrast there are schools in poor areas with no textbooks at all, in which most of the kids are living in poverty, and their parents are too busy paying rent to help the schools. These schools do not get donations from parents, teachers pay out of their own pockets to help the kids.

      I am not sure what about the word “public” you think means that rich people should get the same value of services that poor people get. I think you’re looking for another word entirely.

      • bkwcomments

        If those richer school districts would collect the books they use during the year and donate them to a “sister school” in a poorer district, that could make a huge difference. Most of the information in the books don’t change from year to year, so a book can be used for a couple of years for basic math, science, literature, languages, etc. Your kid’s basic calculator he no longer needs since upgrading to a high tech graphing calc (put in a fresh battery). Donating athletic equipment would help, too. It would be cheaper for the urban school to have it reconditioned rather than buy new stuff. Even practice jerseys, if they don’t have the team name on them. And those of us who are avid readers can donate books we’ve read to inner-city school libraries. Also, if you get a new computer or laptop, have the hard drive wiped clean or replaced by a professional and donate the computer. There are so many ways we can help make a difference. Buy some inexpensive backpacks and put some basic supplies in them, like reusable water bottles, pens, mechanical pencils with extra leads (or regular pencils but include a sharpener!), Post It pads, highliters, note books, folders, whatever YOUR kid needs for school, those kids could use, too! Maybe throw in some snacks, or McDonald’s or Subway gift certificates. Or even clothing! A new hoodie can be had inexpensively from Walmart. Some warm boots, beanie hats, gloves (or mittens for the little ones!) all make a difference.

        • Estarianne

          Or we could just find those schools so they could get what they need when they need it. That would work too.

    • Tallfry03

      The problem with saying that all schools should get the same is that schools with wealthy parents get extra money and volunteer time from those parents. The government is not about to ban parents from donating to their child’s school and there is no way to even those resources out to poorer schools. So even when poorer schools get more money than more affluent schools from government sources, the schools from wealthier families come out ahead.

    • Jamison Bowden

      I don’t think its the system that is largely responsible. In my school district, lower-performing schools get 1000s of dollars more per student than higher-performing schools. $2-3000, as I recall.

      • silhouete2

        Money, though helpful, isn’t the magic bullet to fix what’s wrong with education. Poverty makes a huge difference–and poverty is already experienced by kids way before they ever get to school. Kids who don’t go to preschool or whose parents don’t/can’t read to them are already behind the minute they enter the Kindergarten classroom. Saying that schools are the SOLE reason for the success/failure of a child isn’t what’s truly going on. Schools can help, but we have to tackle the problem of inequality by looking at and accepting what poverty is doing to children and figuring out as a society what we can do to help–wraparound services possibly? We need to change the mindset that the poor are poor because they mostly want to be and if they could, they could get out easily. Until society changes its opinions and mindset on what poverty is, then public policy won’t change.

    • bkwcomments

      Even in public schools, you’re likely to find more parent volunteers, in the classrooms, in extra-curricular activities, in the better neighborhoods. Also, parents can spend more on supplies so, for instance, if their kids are assigned a classic novel to read for their English literature class, those parents can buy their kids a copy, even used, of the book. And aside from basic federal and state funding, cities and towns, with their own school districts, fund their schools with property taxes. Many urban schools have lower tax revenues because of the decreased value of their homes. And in many cities, like here in the mid-west, Detroit, Cleveland, Gary, have lost so many homeowners because of the housing crisis that there are huge numbers of abandoned homes on which nobody pays taxes, and the rest of the tax base is decimated because of tanking property values. Some suburban schools can afford to pay more to build and maintain athletic facilities while the inner-city school kids go without books and even notebooks and writing materials. No, it’s not fair, and having that kind of discrepancy during the school years really puts these kids behind from the first day. They then have to play catch-up for the rest of their time in school, which for far too many ends at about ninth or tenth grade, when they just give up and drop out. Some of the kids who might have done well don’t “quit” as much as they feel a responsibility leave school to go to work to help their families. Such a huge disparity from one district to another. And yet many just classify the poorer kids as lazy, saying they “don’t want to work” and “they’re just going to go on welfare like their mothers, and their grandmothers.” These kids can’t get a break!

  • Kim

    And now they want to tie teache evaluations to test scores. There will now be a massive Exodus of teachers from poverty schools also.

    • John Ostrander

      It’s already started.

    • silhouete2

      There is a massive lack of people coming the profession as of late. Plus, so many new teachers I know leave after 4-5 years because of the ridiculousness of what is being imposed on them as well as the bashing of teachers in general. Who wants to work in a profession where students–who aren’t held accountable for test scores–take tests whose scores determine whether a teacher is rated effective or not. Even in some instances student test scores are counted toward a teacher who NEVER taught them–because the teacher teaches a subject/grade that doesn’t take tests. No wonder many young people I talk to have no desire to teach. I don’t blame them.

  • Monica McHale

    I have spent the last twenty five years in public schools and yes to all of this! I am not in a poor district now but even in my relatively affluent setting I see the increasing inequities in public education as a whole and in the experience of school for those of wealth and those in poverty in the same building. There are simply not enough social services available for students and families in poverty nor for those who struggle to get by and live from paycheck to paycheck (and there are quite a lot of those). But on top of all of this, I am thinking more and more about the increasing irrelevance of our traditional educational paradigm that involves a hierarchal structure where schools via teachers, impart knowledge, control what knowledge is acceptable in the classroom and then rank order children based on how much of it they have (regardless of whether they got that knowledge from home, other experiences, or in school via traditional means). Kids in poverty tend to come to school with less background experiences and the vocabulary development that comes from these experiences. Catching up is difficult because the kids of privilege continue to get all these wonderful experiences outside of school and sometimes those things, have more to do with their success in school than what happens day to day in the classroom. Recently at SXSWedu, Tony Wagner, in speaking of the disconnect between education and the work world, stated, “What the world cares about is not what you know. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.” While all of K-12 education needs to do a better job in fostering creativity, problem solving and application of knowledge, I currently see the opportunity for this kind of learning much more prevalent in more affluent schools. Technology has put factual knowledge at our fingertips. We need the emphasis in all schools to be fostering our students’ ability to apply knowledge creatively to relevant, real world problems. I believe that kind of learning environment could go far to level the playing field. So what is standing in the way of that? Oh yes, it doesn’t necessarily translate well to multiple choice testing format.
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    • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

      I agree with what you are saying but I think the learning must start at a level far below the day the child enters a classroom.

      We have massive numbers of babies being born to mothers who cannot take care of them. They are not loved and nurtured. They don’t get the attention they should get. They are simply created for the purpose of a government check. So the mother can get high, get drunk, sit around and do nothing, have multiple sexual partners and have more babies.

      At some point these children are handed off to the school teacher who is supposed to be the miracle worker for eight hours per day and then send them home to no food, no love and attention, often times in a violent drug-infested household, and more babies on the way.

      The problem starts at home. No amount of school funding is going to fix this problem. Children need two responsible parents who plan for them, love them, teach them, feed them, and give them values. It won’t change until our government stops paying for irresponsible people to have children for checks.

      • NSes

        Wow it’s like you think children are all born with just one parent.

        • silhouete2

          Or just have them to get a check from the govt.

          • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

            And trust me…many people are having children just for the checks from the government!

          • kayjay68

            That’s a myth. According to the data from 2012, 50% of families receiving welfare benefits have 1 child, and another 25% have 2. And the total number of recipients are down 33% from 1996. So at most 25% are in this so-called group of people “having children just for the checks”. It would be more accurate to say that some people do this and most do not.

          • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

            It’s 2015. I think your stats are a tad off. Some people doing it is too many.

            I know people with children that are getting a check from Uncle Sam. They drive new cars, take nice vacations, get their hair and nails done, buy new clothes, get free healthcare and dental care for the kids, and receive subsidized childcare.

            These people don’t live in the hood. They live in affluent white neighborhoods with children that are half black. Baby daddy pays zip. Nothing. Nada. He even had four women pregnant at the same time. Last I heard he had 26 children and he was only 23 years old! Just think what happens when those 26 each have 26. Now, you’ve got the BIG picture of how this behavior destroys a society faster than you can fix it.

        • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

          No, I don’t. There are excellent single parents and there are excellent couples that are parents. But we have far too many single women producing children for checks not for the joy of raising them. But they, too are repeating exactly what they have learned.

          Children live what the learn. Good and devoted parents do not need to be rich. There are plenty of horrible rich parents. It’s not about the money. It’s about being responsible and teaching the child from day one. Children need to learn compassion, love, self-confidence, determination, critical thinking, and survival skills from a very young age. School teachers are not the only ones that should be expected to teach them.

          • jim murphy

            CUT THEIR OVERACTIVE TUBES ,!

      • ak_laura

        “let’s show a little compassion for those who are less fortunate. Believe it or not, they did not ask to be poor.” Please do not perpetuate myths about those who are poor, many not by choice. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/08/03/1317417/-Busting-the-seven-great-myths-of-poverty#

        • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

          I have plenty of compassion for those less fortunate. My dad grew up in a one bedroom house with five people. They worked hard and still didn’t have much. Times were tough. Much tougher than they are today. And they were too proud to have ever taken anything from anybody and back then the government didn’t cripple people with handouts.

          He worked hard and stuck to the principles of honesty, integrity, and hard work. He was very successful. He taught his children to do the same. At times I have worked three jobs but so what, I learned a lot and made my own way…every day…in every way. I never had my hand out to anybody for any reason, not even my parents.

          I’m not talking about people who have illnesses or circumstances beyond their control. Those are usually the people that refuse to take a helping hand. I’m talking about the ones that don’t work, bring children into the world and let them raise themselves, and spend their days making more babies, drunk, on drugs, smoking, or down at the tattoo parlor. Of course, they are getting there in their new cars after they stop off to get their hair and nails done. I’ve seen it far too many times. Able-bodied people should be working. If they aren’t working they should be volunteering where they will learn and take pride in themselves.

          People with no ambition do not raise children with ambition. Welfare begets welfare and it continues generation after generation. Throwing more money into the poor schools isn’t going to do anything unless the parents start from a young age working with the kids and continuing to do so, including attending parent-teacher conferences.

          Children were never meant to raise themselves. Period.

          • Guest

            I too grew up poor and because I know what it is like to be in that situation I don’t wish it upon anyone else, nor do I use it to say “look at me, I did it, so can they”. When the economy is out of control and there are no jobs, it’s beyond your control. Also because I grew up poor, I have compassion for those who are suffering. We all want to provide for our families, we all want security and I’m not going to judge those who are trying but through no fault of their own, it is a struggle. The myth that people choose to be poor and on welfare is just that a myth. Yes their are people who do abuse the “systems” but those are the exception and this needs to be recognized as such!

          • ak_laura

            I too grew up poor and because I know what it is like to be in that situation I don’t wish it upon anyone else, nor do I use it to say “look at me, I did it, so can they”. When the economy is out of control and there are no jobs, it’s beyond your control. Also because I grew up poor, I have compassion for those who are suffering – I know that struggle that comes along with trying to stretch what little resources you have. We all want to provide for our families, we all want security and I’m not going to judge those who are trying but are struggling. The myth that people choose to be poor and on welfare is just that, a myth. Yes there are people who do abuse the “systems” but those are the exception and this needs to be recognized as such.

          • Dee Gee

            Giving examples of individual cases to judge an entire population is not very effective.

          • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

            Seriously? You can’t be serious. Hard work is what developed an entire population and created a strong work ethic. That is until the government decided to hand out money to those who decided work wasn’t for them but making babies, doing drugs, and being drunk was how they want to live. Enabling these people needs to stop! Yes, there will always be some people who need and deserve the help and that is understandable, but the abuse of the system needs to stop. I just read last night the Kansas Governor Brownback signed to make some changes that are going to stop the waste of tax dollars in his state. Good for him!

            There are many cases of people who make their own way they just aren’t sharing their stories on the internet because they are too busy out working and don’t spend money on the internet. They are focused on their future. I know one guy that doesn’t have a cell phone or the internet and enjoys his stress-free life. He works hard and is always happy. He’s not rich and never hopes to be. He just wants to live free of government assistance and enjoy his life.

    • bkwcomments

      This is what I dislike about CORE and all the mandated testing. We are teaching kids to pass a test rather than teaching them HOW TO LEARN! That is so important and goes to what you say about the learning they do in THEIR outside environment, at home, in their neighborhoods – those experiences are so important and the gap in knowledge bases from one income level to another is huge, nearly insurmountable. Lower income kids DO need more help from the system to make up for what’s not available to them outside the school system. These kids aren’t lazy. They aren’t stupid. They’re just behind the eight ball from day one and need more resources to overcome that.

      • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

        Money won’t help them learn. Nurturing, attention, love, reading to them, playing games with them, talking to them, walking with them, spending time with them…that’s how children learn…none of which takes money.

        • Siggy

          I’ve really appreciated this thread. It certainly helps to know the frustrations spinning in my mind aren’t alone. I wish articles like this became viral and a part of our common cultural awareness. And i agree, a lot of money won’t fix it. But if you have parent(s) tied to their jobs without decent pay, that’s not right either. I’m all for increasing opportunities, but i have a hard time pardoning adults who should know better. Responsibility is a heavy burden that many aren’t aware of until after they have done horrendous damage to our nation’s families. On the flip side, how culpable are those who grow up without support and examples?

          • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

            America is the land of opportunity. Nobody is tied to a job without decent pay. If we don’t like our pay we can acquire more skills and move to something with higher pay. I know because I’ve done it several times. In one career I started at the company’s lowest paying job and in 7.5 years I had learned new skills and moved through different positions to the highest paying position (non-management) that the company had to offer. Yes, it was A LOT of hard work, but if I can do it, anybody can do it. People get ahead through a willingness to learn, earning respect, carrying their own load, taking on responsibilities, being trustworthy, and taking the risks for something better. Those who do not choose to do that can remain in the same position forever but should not expect a great deal more in pay.

            Personally, I would like to see our government establish a self-sterilization opportunity. Everyone between 18 and 33 that wishes to take a cash payment of $10,000 and be sterilized free of charge by a government paid doctor can do so. They can use the money for college, a car, vacation, open a business, or go buy drugs with it. The one thing they will not be doing is bringing children into the world that they do not want, cannot support, and depend on the taxpayers to pay for. No. They receive a one time $10,000 cash payment and that is it. I’ve heard the excuse “well she got pregnant because she couldn’t afford to buy birth control.” Really? But she CAN afford to raise a child? No. Of course she can’t and neither can the “baby daddy” who is running around acting like a sperm donor to every woman he can charm. Nor does she want to raise a child but when the government is going to pay her to have these children it’s an incentive to keep having more and more of them. This is the ideal person that would run down to take the $10,000 and ultimately the taxpayers win the battle. Not to mention more poor innocent children are not subjected to this life of poverty, insanity, and absence of love. A plan like this might also could reduce the number of abortions that are always a hot topic.

            As a country we have to stop dancing around the elephant in the room. We cannot create poverty at a faster rate than prosperity and ever expect to turn this country around. The rich haven’t destroyed the country. The rich have employed the country. We need more people with the motivation to take the risk to become business owners and employ those who wish to be the workers. Regardless of the pay scale of the parents the richer people do not have the smarter children and the poorer people have less intelligent children. It’s the early childhood education, nutrition, attention, nurturing, and devotion to their well-being that makes all the difference in how a child grows to become a responsible and positive contributor to our society. Until we recognize that, things will never get better only worse.

      • Trick Gill

        This has nothing to do with common core more to do with absent parents from their children education. Programs do work but are not the answer you do not have to be rich or middle class to push and motivate your kids.

    • jim murphy

      God in his wisdom loved the rich he truely loved them and provided so much to them , satisfying their every need, bless his magnificence lets all pray and praise him , The poor rable however including their dirty urchinis ,he cast a beignful eye at them, wondering why the magnificence of his creations was tainted with their dusty shadows. Cest la vie he said, it all cant be great and some of them will be swept away by hunger, disease, war or other disasters nature! That will take care of some of them, well the rest will just be the rich mans burden! And why do they need so much teaching anyway, they aint going far anyway, maybe we can exchange them for some foreigners and send them back to wherever they may land , just so its not here!

      • jim murphy

        SIGN UP HERE NOW ALL LIBERTARIANS WELCOMED, REPUBLICANS AS WELL AND DISILLUSIONED DEMOCRATS ALSO, its them or us now halleluliah brother!

  • Felix McAllister

    Robert Putnam also did a study that concluded diversity was not a strength, but a weakness. Might that have something to do with the growing opportunity gap? http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/08/05/the_downside_of_diversity/?page=full

    • Jamison Bowden

      Not completely a weakness…
      from the article…Culture clashes can produce a dynamic give-and-take, generating a solution that may have eluded a group of people with more similar backgrounds and approaches

  • Jamison Bowden

    In my 19 years of experience, I’ve seen that schools that serve low-SES students get more govt money per student. These schools are the first to have SmartBoards and document cameras and I have never a shortage of textbooks or similar materials. They also are more likely to have Family Resource Centers. PTAs in higher SES schools will likely bring in more money to pay for other things desired by the school–usually doesn’t go toward textbooks, but for items as varied as bleachers, murals and iPads. I don’t have solutions here, but I just want to point out in my experience that the problem isn’t lack of materials. Low SES schools aren’t denied money. The achievement gap starts at home. Students now are expected to be able to have some basics when they enter kindergarten. If they don’t, they are behind. If they don’t get support at home, they will regress further behind students whose households have different priorities for their children. Low SES students (generally, of course) have fewer parents who show up for conferences, even when those students’ parents have been contacted to ask for them. The only way money is a part of any solution as I see it to have smaller class sizes.

    • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

      AMEN. You got it right. It all starts at HOME.

    • silhouete2

      Money for lower class sizes and expanded preschools like Kidango. That would possibly be an effective use of money in schools–but you are right. Things happen at home long before a child gets to school.

    • CleverBev

      The “Achievement Gap” is an entitlement gap, and you know it, or you should. How did these families become poorer and less educated? They started out that way, for various political and economic reasons, and they are kept that way, mainly because most middle and upper-class people see success as a Zero-Sum game. If “someone else’s child” wins, then they believe it means their child loses something. In my 30 years of education experience, I have NOT seen urban schools get all of the goodies, the facilities, or even the necessities, that wealthier schools do. “It” starts at home because the lack of resources, most especially cultural resources, begins at home. Teachers and schools are still expected to correct society’s failings, and much of the country loves it that way. If we keep the blame on the public sector, then the rest of us can do that rather than talk about poverty–and finding ways to combat it.

      • Jamison Bowden

        Please elaborate on ” they are kept that way, mainly because most middle and upper-class people see success as a Zero-Sum game”
        Also, there are libraries all over my school district. I took my kids there to read to them and check out books. Other parents have different priorities.

  • bkwcomments

    It would be great if schools like the one her kids attended would “partner” with an inner-city school, sharing resources. Like, if the Brentwood school had to read a certain book for English class one year, ask the kids to then donate their books so the inner-city kids could use them the following year! (The Brentwood classes are likely smaller, so encourage the kids to donate two copies! They can get used ones, too.) The same can be done with text books. When I was in college, our Spanish language books were used for two semesters, but for some reason, in four years they changed the books twice, so we had a total of three books! The original and two newer ones. The LANGUAGE doesn’t change, just the “extra materials” like an audio CD and access to a website guide, which nobody used. Imagine if those first two sets of books had been donated by the students to inner-city schools!

  • Radar

    Key point…these kids are bringing problems to school that the school is not either equipt to handle or can’t handle…their home life. Schools were set up to teach academics not to be parents. Either the schools need to be restructured to deal with how parenting needs have changed or people need to understand what a family is and what having kids really means…or both. The lose of the family unit has been detrimental to these kids.

  • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

    When will we stop and recognize that “baby daddies” who are running around getting multiple women pregnant is a big part of this problem? The women are then raising these children on government assistance and some work but some don’t. Drugs and alcohol and jail time distract them from being parents. These kids are raising themselves and becoming drug dealers and in trouble with the law themselves….and the cycle repeats…more illegitimate children….and the cycle repeats over again.

    Until we stop this insanity of paying people to have children than cannot raise this problem will exist!

    Teachers are educators. They should not be expected to be security guards, counselors to dysfunctional parents and kids, and spend their money to buy supplies for the classroom. America needs to stop thinking that professional ball players are the best examples and focus on those who are trying to better our society. I’m not a teacher and there is not enough money on earth to ever get me to take on that career. We don’t pay them enough. We don’t recognize all the demands we make on them. And we certainly aren’t doing enough to help them with all the responsibilities that have been bestowed upon them.

    Bottom line…America needs to get its priorities straight!

  • Chris

    According to the most comprehensive study to date, the recently released CREDO study shows that urban charters are outperforming their traditional public school counterparts. While there is some variation, the charter schools right there in Nashville are having greater success. The traditional public schools in the area might do well to learn from their example. http://urbancharters.stanford.edu/news.php

    • silhouete2

      CREDO releases a study every year with the same results–and if you do a search you will see plenty of criticism of the report. If a charter school operates with the same rules as a public school—where it must accept all children who want to attend and doesn’t put restrictions on parents by requiring them to do certain things in the school that public schools cannot—and then do a survey of their programs and find it is superior, then I’ll buy it. Many charters that operate in lower income areas where I live select children, or allow any to attend buy “counsel” them out when they don’t perform or have behavior issues OR the parents don’t live up to the agreement on what they are supposed to do. Public schools cannot put those requirements on families–they must accept and educate everyone who comes through their doors.

  • Tom Simpson

    I wish someone would do a longitudinal study on teachers who spend time in less affluent areas. The study should focus on where those teachers end up raising their children in the future.

    I think the results of that study would open some eyes. I loved my teaching experience in a low income area, but I have children now and I’m definitely not raising them there.

  • guest

    When the upper third has abandoned the idea of a social compact — the idea that we are all responsible for one another as part of a functioning civil society — you will have a tough time making the haves feel obligated to help the have-nots. The have-nots understand that it’s every man for himself and act accordingly, with the result being that the toughest among the poor will survive and others will not. The brutality of a two-class society — which is what we’re headed back to after a few hundred years of a so-called “middle” class having its day — is being played out in public schools across the country. (The middle class, historically speaking, is a blip in the timeline, and its days are numbered.) The inequities in today’s public education system are a mirror of what’s happening in gentrifying cities that don’t build enough affordable housing: these systems weed out those on the ends of the spectrum. The rich will transfer to private schools, the poorest will flounder, drop out and die early.
    Don’t expect that upper third (soon to become that upper tenth as the pecking order becomes even more segmented) to care about the bottom anytime soon.

    • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

      Bull. How do you explain all the efforts Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet have expended to the schools? They are rich and their money is not going to the wealthy schools. Plenty of wealthy people are contributing substantial amounts of money to the education of all children. But the parents of the disadvantaged children have to put down the remote and cell phone, sober up, and take the kids out for the adventure of learning.

    • Soc-EmoIQ

      there is the Social and Emotional IQ education to integrate into each school district with the curriculum process. My familiarity w this is through Rutgers University, via Maurice Elias, PhD. Jacqui Norris PhD, a protege of his, also is quite salient in this integration process. Actually, I am unsure if they have PhD or EdD doctorates but that is less important for our students than is their abilities to help children grow n become more healthy decision makers w a stronger acumen of knowledge to be critical thinkers and happier people in their chosen fields of endeavors and study.

  • Margaret Codina

    I’ve spent the last 21 years working with low-income children. My solution is that every Title 1 school should start at age 2, with certified teachers providing the education and highly qualified teacher assistants providing before and after school care for working parents. My current school is 100% free lunch – we have 7 kindergarten classes and only 1 Head Start that offers 1/2 days starting at age 4. Too little, too late. The investment in early childhood education would pay for itself in a few years, with the decreased need to hire reading specialists (such as myself!), SPED teachers, behavior specialists, etc. etc. Get these kids early into a cognitively enriched, nurturing environment for a majority of the day and the achievement gap will CLOSE.

    • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

      You are one smart and informed woman! Hats off to you!!!!

    • In other words, get the schools into the business of modeling and parenting children in poverty (lowest 1/3 of population) before the actual parent(s) have damaged their children….

  • deb

    This is so true. I see kids not being patented or assisted by family. I see parents more interested in their own lIves than their children. Most have the opinion of “as long as I don’t hear from the cops I don’t care what happens to you,or what you do , or how you survive”. Drugs , alcohol and just surviving themselves leaves them to overwhelmed to understand that their children need help. If you can please help a child even being a friend that is there to say “wow that’s great” makes a difference.

  • Sommer

    I know this isn’t going to be a popular response but here goes: I have been teaching for 10 years and my classes sound exactly like the ones described above (however, I teach science, not english). I have 180 kids on average (high school), no books, and no money for supplies. I have some brilliant kids, some troubled kids, and every combination of good and bad that you can imagine. When I have had opportunities to to give my kids more – they rarely take it. There are always some that do…but the majority do not. It is not just that a lot of my kids have so many personal issues at home that school seems like an annoying side-bar – but that it seems impossible for me to convince them that working hard will improve their circumstances. I have kids that do not know where the next meal will come from and simply want to work and find stability. I also have kids with families that make next to no money (on record) and dress better than I do….and will not be convinced that years of education and hard work are worth it. There is a statement above: “It’s not so much what districts do or don’t do nearly as much as what kids bring to school.” That statement touched home with me. There are not just circumstances of the home life but cultural mores that are at direct odds with success in a typical school environment. I think the answer is less “What can schools do?” and more “How can we change what school is? How can we adapt the basic model to fit what is needed now?” …and one last thought, I highly suggest smaller schools (and varied learning environments) to promote a sense of community that seems to be lost with larger schools. We need to open up the idea that there are a lot of honest jobs with good pay that do not require a college education – and help prep our kids for a productive, stable life.

    • disqus_8oBVer75Lt

      Thank you for telling it like it is. I have friends who are teachers and they say the same thing. They plan parent-teacher conferences and the parents don’t ever show up. They could care less. The kids come to school dirty, hungry, and sometimes abused. This is not in a low class area of the city, I should add.

      Too much is expected of the teachers. By nature teachers are nurturing but they can’t be all things to all kids and get it all done in an eight hour day.

      Perhaps we need live-in schools? Perhaps the child has visits with parents but doesn’t have to live in the alcohol rages, abusive parents, and be left to raise himself? Perhaps America should bring the orphanages back and give these children a peaceful place to live?

  • Excellent article, and another reminder on the importance of volunteering: “Typically, we tend to hang out with people that are similar to us in things like race, religion and socioeconomic status. Volunteering is one of the few ways to break out of that circle and realize that we have more in common with other people than we thought.” — Jenny Friedman, DGT™ Founder/Executive Director

  • Inge Line Russell

    The most interesting is that this mother was unaware that not everything is like in her sub-urb.

  • Cresenda Jones

    Without integration (SES & race), things will not change. Our schools are hyper segregated. Brown v. BOE is not implemented. “Shame of the Nation” (Jonathan Kozol)

  • Cresenda Jones
  • As educators we must do one thing and do that one thing well. We must educate our students to read, write, speak and most importantly to think. Poverty is not a death sentence and the belief that problems related to poverty are too much to overcome sets educators up for failure because they use it as an excuse to not prepare the students they serve. We are not the Messiah, we are sent here by him to serve our purpose and as educators that means loving our students, even when it is hard to like them and most importantly teaching them our subjects by making the material relevant to their situation. Wealth provides problems, poverty provides problems, life provides problems: Education will provide our students choices, chances and options. I found out as the son of a incarcerated father and unemployed mother that my financial situation put us in a category that allowed me multiple government grants to go to college. But i could never get in if i didn’t graduate. Teach them the skills to graduate and they will find the way to overcome I am a living example. Urban School Principal for 17 years

  • Art Vandelay

    Sounds like a lack of support both from parents and government funding schools. Where is all the school money going? It sure isn’t going to the teachers.

  • Kayla Burrow

    This article is so spot on for me – I spent 7 years in the classroom in high-poverty districts as a tutor (during college) and then as an English and AVID teacher, and I can’t tell you how true this is. That’s why I loved teaching AVID and work for AVID HQ now. It provides schools/educators with strategies that help all kids succeed, especially by opening up access to AP courses and providing community support through the AVID peer group and teachers – just as the Putnam suggests. All students need high expectations, but they also need SUPPORT! Our nation has to realize that there are so many students who are not having their basic needs met. It’s really by luck of birth that some students are born in what I like to call “fertile ground” – with college-educated parents and lots of personal resources. We have to do more as a country to provide more fertile ground for all of OUR kids.

  • jim murphy

    Now how about abortion and early terminations of the unworthy, that should level the playing field and make sure the worthy wealthey stay on top and in control!

  • kanai gandhi

    I completely agree that social status of a student can affect their access to education. Private schools, laptop schools and charter schools are the three levels on which student’s future can be predicted. Students in private and laptop schools are going to be educated progresively, where they have a chance to participate, learn and experience to support their individual differences and opinions and students in public schools may never have that as the teacher to student ratio may not allow individual student to be paid attention to. This, in my opinion creates a cycle of poverty; where students who cannot afford a good education cannot be well aware and get a good job in order to make sure that their next generation recieves better education. This cycle can only be broken if their arise schools that provide great education for which students do not need to pay more than they can afford and this can level the gap between social classes in the future.

  • kanai gandhi

    What I have come to realise is that achievement gaps can only be closed if the cycle of poverty is broken. This cycle begins because parents do not have the economic capitals to support their kids education. Not only that, but also to expose their kids to a higher socio-economic environment that may help them be more aware of different kinds of cultural capitals. Considering this cycle is hard to break, one needs to recommend a higher level of education, one where a student experiences different kinds of environments, in order for the student to be more aware and alert to where he or she chooses to go ahead. Achievement gaps will only close due to equality among all kinds of educating environment. So as long as all schools reach a similar level, this problem may continue.

  • Dee Gee

    Too bad this article was not edited better.

Author

Holly Korbey

Holly Korbey's work on parenting and education has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Babble, Brain, Child Magazine, and others. She lives in Nashville with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @HKorbey

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