By PAUL THOMAS
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the United Kingdom this month has released a perceptive and important report on poverty and education. The most significant element of the first eight projects looking at poverty and education is that the negative impact of poverty on student learning is far more devastating than even the best schools can overcome.
While we spend far too much time and money in the United States focusing on increasing test scores, raising standards and holding schools and teachers accountable, the overwhelming evidence from this report, as well as stacks of other research, points to several conclusions that could serve us well in this country — if we are willing to begin to focus on the greater social disease and not the symptoms we find in the schools.
The problems in our schools are that our education system is a reflection of our society; we must accept that low student achievement is a reflection of poverty, politics and bureaucracy.
The U.K. study offers the following conclusions about poverty and education:
• The correlation between poverty and student achievement is profound and undeniable.
• Race is a significant factor in student achievement among children in poverty, and boys seem to suffer disproportionately both in school achievement and in their prospects after schooling.
• School quality has a low impact on student achievement (14 percent) when compared to many other factors both inside and outside of school.
• “Less advantaged children are more likely to feel a lack of control over their learning, and to become reluctant recipients of the taught curriculum.”
• Children value education in general, but children from poverty “are more likely to feel anxious and unconfident about school.”
While this study highlights what we clearly know about the impact of poverty on student learning, it also suggests that we are dedicating ourselves to the wrong things when we claim to desire increased student achievement, and thereby claim to work to close the achievement gap.
A recent and tragic event from the headlines proves to be a chilling metaphor for our misguided efforts.
In her haste to pick up and deliver dozens of doughnuts to her work, a mother inadvertently left her child in a car seat all day; the child perished in the heat. Every time we make claims about increasing test scores, closing the achievement gap or holding teachers and schools accountable, we are spending all our time and money making sure the doughnuts are delivered while we ignore the children trapped in the sweltering car of poverty in their daily lives outside of our schools.
The devastating effect of poverty on a child’s life is formed many years before any child enters school; that impact grows exponentially as that child continues to suffer in life outside school and falls further and further behind in school. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation study shows, even the best schools cannot overcome the realities of any child’s life outside of that school. Just as in life outside of school, of course, a few overcome poverty, but far too many do not — and schools are not equipped to be the sole ticket out.
This does not excuse poor schools; we cannot allow children of any income background to be cheated by poor schools. All schools must have no ceilings and open doors for every child, because many children come from lives with low ceilings and nothing except closed doors.
However, the types of schools all students deserve are not schools that spend every day of the year trying to raise test scores — drilling the students in worksheet after worksheet that mimics the tests. The types of schools all students deserve are not schools where the administration commits itself to closing the achievement gap, while no government official makes any real attempt to address poverty and abuse in the hours and days children spend outside of school (which accounts for only a third of each day for about 180 days a year).
Low student achievement and the achievement gap are symptoms of much larger social ills. In Snow White, the evil queen blames the mirror for showing her reality, and instead of addressing that reality, the queen demands a dishonest mirror.
Our schools reflect for each of us those aspects of our society that need us the most — children born into lives of poverty through no choice or fault of their own. We must stop blaming this mirror for the reality we try to ignore.
Dr. Thomas, who teaches at Furman University, is the author of Numbers Games.