Poverty and student achievement: Are we comparing the wrong groups?

 Earlier this week I published a piece by UCLA Professor and author Mike Rose titled, “Leave No Unwealthy Child Behind,” in which he discusses how economic inequality is reflected in educational achievement. Here’s a response from Robert Bligh, former general counsel  of the Nebraska Association of School Boards. Bligh’s research interest involves the efficacy of the school reform efforts promoted by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since its original adoption in 1965. He served as assistant professor at Doane College and was editor and publisher of the Nebraska School Law Reporter.

By Robert Bligh

I write in response to UCLA Professor. Mike Rose’s “Leave No Unwealthy Child Behind” that was published on “The Answer Sheet.” I want to suggest a somewhat broader view of the problem. No rational person can question the overwhelming relationship between a financially impoverished childhood and a strong tendency to fail in school. Unfortunately Professor Rose’s commentary seems to suggest that the sole cause of the problem is poverty and that it is unrelated to the behavior of the failed students’ parents.

Such a conclusion ignores the fact that millions of impoverished students succeed academically every day. This is very probably because their parents have gone to considerable trouble to raise their children despite the difficulties created by numbing poverty. Any child, impoverished or affluent, who is treated like a treasure rather than a nuisance enters kindergarten with a built-in advantage. When we are silent about the fundamental impact of failed families, our silence is an insult to the heroic families who refuse to allow financial poverty to become academic destiny for their children.

If we really want to use scientific comparisons to identify approaches that could be used to help children succeed in school – and in life – perhaps we should examine the possibility that we are comparing the “wrong” groups of children. Perhaps we should stop comparing children living in poverty with children not living in poverty. Perhaps we should begin looking more closely at two different groups of poor children. Consider research to identify the most meaningful differences between the households of (a) poor kids who fail academically and (b) poor kids who succeed academically. That would do at least two good things:

(1) It would remind all of us that strong (responsible, adult, humane, caring, child-oriented, nurturing, etc.) families tend strongly to generate academically successful children even in the face of financial poverty, and

(2) It would give us a list parenting skills (and other non-school factors) that, when steadfastly and humanely applied even in financially poor families, tend to produce kindergartners who show up on the first day of school without academic achievement gaps already well-established. We know that teachers can successfully teach such children.

Each child’s life includes about 50,000 hours between conception and the first day of kindergarten. Each student spends only about 14,000 hours in classrooms between kindergarten and the end of 12th grade. Consider the Stanovich “Matthew Effects” explanation of the delayed acquisition of reading skills. Earlier learning failure generates later learning failure. It seems undeniable that what happens (that is, what is experienced, learned and suffered by a child) during the first 50,000 hours of life largely determines the academic success or failure during following the 14,000 hours of formal schooling.

I admit that this sounds as if I am “blaming” the parents for the academic failure of their offspring and, thus, violating a cherished political taboo. For a minute, forget “blame” and its political baggage. Consider “cause” and its scientific significance. If our emotional distaste for the term “blame” prevents us from conducting an intellectual search for “cause” (as it has for the last five decades), then I would argue that we become morally responsible for the ensuing damage. The solution to this horrific problem is not hiding in our classrooms. If it were, we would have found it by now. We are academically and morally obligated to look elsewhere.

Impoverished parents of academically successful children are heroes. We should examine the aspects of their behavior that make them so successful at being parents. It would not only give them the honor they deserve, but it might give us a map of the pathway to academic success for all children trapped in poverty.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 9, 2013