Monday, November 21, 2005

Poverty and educational opportunity --

Tuesday, November 15, 2005 - Bangor Daily News

Historically, most Americans have worshipped the free market. If poverty becomes widespread, liberals blame poorly funded schools. They reason that as long as children have access to good public schools, anyone who works can succeed. Conservatives fault the moral character of the poor. Or, like President Bush, they suggest that lazy and permissive public school teachers and unions tolerate and encourage bad habits among children of the poor. Both perspectives unfairly scapegoat public schools and the children of the poor...

...close studies of test results show that the United States does well even in comparison with nations where only elites take the tests...When treated as a separate nation, U.S. white children are number one on some tests...

American education is failing primarily in the sense that it badly serves poor and minority children...As one critic has quipped, ZIP codes would do just fine. Punishing these schools won't provide the teacher training, smaller classes, and quality preschool programs that have been shown to improve the performance of such schools...

...Can good schools compensate for deficiencies in children's lives outside of school? In a recent Teacher's College Record, Arizona State University Professor David Berliner reminds us that over the course of a school year, children spend about five times as many waking hours with family and neighborhood friends as they do in school.

...The poor you may always have with you, but a recent UNICEF study puts the childhood poverty rates in the Scandinavian countries at fewer than 5 percent of the population ..

...Historically some conservatives have argued that school can't make up for bad genes, which are viewed as the real cause of poor school performance and poverty. Berliner replies by reminding us of the hideous example of children brought up in a closet, whose capacity for physical growth, language acquisition, and intellectual functioning could not be developed. He then cites Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin's thought experiment: Plant two batches of seed corn, one in good soil with sufficient water and sun, the other in soil lacking exposure to sun and suitable nutrients. The seeds planted in good conditions will do on the whole much better. They will also show more differences among themselves than those planted in poor conditions, none of which will thrive. There are genetic differences among individual seeds, but for those in poor conditions, the full genetic capacity cannot be expressed...

More recently, work in the social sciences on mothers of mono and dizygotic twins shows analogous results. At the lowest socio-economic class, environment is a very strong predictor of measured IQ. In other words, though there are differences in various capacities among all human beings, our poorest citizens have very little chance to develop the full range of their capacities.

The good news is that modest improvements in the environment of the poorest children can bring large gains in academic performance...

..Goldberg points out that allocations for child care under the 1997 welfare "reform" have fallen far short of real need. Sen. Snowe has advocated a $6 billion increase over the next five years. These would be positive steps. Yet they would be inadequate without job training and minimum wage enhancements to increase the probability that jobs can meet minimal needs. Without such reforms, equality of opportunity even for our children - let alone George Bush's ownership society - will remain a dream. Our schools will continue taking the blame for problems beyond their reach.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor.

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But no, blame the teachers, blame the schools, blame the districts, and punish everyone, except of course those wishing to make a profit off of public education.

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