What to do about America’s education gap

I’m admittedly a week behind on my reading of the New York Times Magazine, so it was only last night that I read last Sunday’s excellent cover story by Paul Tough, “How to Make a Student,” which surveys the current conflict over how to address America’s education gap. Tough’s piece’s at once echoes the point made in a NYTM article that I read about six years ago–that the education gap is about far more than what schools traditionally provide students–while recounting a number of success stories of schools, particularly KIPP, that have taken the worst students and brought them up to grade-level.

. . . the evidence is becoming difficult to ignore: when educators do succeed at educating poor minority students up to national standards of proficiency, they invariably use methods that are radically different and more intensive than those employed in most American public schools. So as the No Child Left Behind law comes up for reauthorization next year, Americans are facing an increasingly stark choice: is the nation really committed to guaranteeing that all of the country’s students will succeed to the same high level? And if so, how hard are we willing to work, and what resources are we willing to commit, to achieve that goal?

The old article I’m referring to argued that the education gap would persist until low-income housing areas are broken up and economically disadvantaged students share the culture that exists outside of school with their middle-class peers. If anyone can tell me the author or title of this article, please let me know. I can’t seem to remember it. Tough, in last week’s piece, focuses on the cultural and behavioral knowledge that poor students lack.

In public life, the qualities that middle-class children develop are consistently valued over the ones that poor and working-class children develop. Middle-class children become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack. The cultural differences translate into a distinct advantage for middle-class children in school, on standardized achievement tests and, later in life, in the workplace.

Taken together, the conclusions of these researchers can be a little unsettling. Their work seems to reduce a child’s upbringing, which to a parent can feel something like magic, to a simple algorithm: give a child X, and you get Y. Their work also suggests that the disadvantages that poverty imposes on children aren’t primarily about material goods. True, every poor child would benefit from having more books in his home and more nutritious food to eat (and money certainly makes it easier to carry out a program of concerted cultivation). But the real advantages that middle-class children gain come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey. However you measure child-rearing, middle-class parents tend to do it differently than poor parents — and the path they follow in turn tends to give their children an array of advantages. As Lareau points out, kids from poor families might be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite — but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society.

One Comment

  1. evicious

    Well, what is your opinion on this particular passage?
    “Middle-class children become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack.”

    Perhaps poor parents take their children’s concern just as seriously but they are not able to effectively address those concerns. I think the issue may not be “entitlement” — it’s not about whether we think we deserve something. It’s more about whether we think we can HOPE for something.

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