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.
“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.
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.”
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.”