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John Thompson: Is Rising Poverty Sinking Hopes for College?

Guest post by John Thompson.

From the Clinton Administration's welfare reform until the Bush first term, my senior Government students loved to dissect the writings of Jason DeParle and, later, Paul Tough. We made the standard accommodations for low-skilled readers as they wrestled with the work of New York Times Magazine writers. Each student was provided photocopies with the key passages highlighted and the definitions of challenging words were written in the margins. The students then brought personal stories to the profound class discussions that followed.

Back in the 1990s, our school was 2/3rds low income and we had a steady stream of former students returning from college. Our alumni said that these lessons, built on real world experiences and challenging them to think analytically, were the best preparation they had received for college; some said that our class was the only preparation they had received. By the time my students read DeParle's "Raising Kevion" and Tough's accounts of the Harlem Children's Zone, however, our school was well on the way to becoming 100% low income. Since then, the few returning alumni were warning that almost none of our graduates were making it in college, and they were running up huge debts in the process.

My students' experiences were thus consistent with DeParle's and Tough's conclusions that extreme poverty has grown worse since welfare reform, and that its sibling, school reform, has not helped (or it even damaged) the poorest schools.

Now that test-driven reform has narrowed the curriculum and increased test prep, it can be much harder for teachers to sneak authentic and engaging lessons into the classroom. But, I don't know if I would want to use something as discouraging as DeParle's, "For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall." It recounts the failure of three promising graduates of a low income high school to complete college. In the process, they run up debts of as much as $61,000.

There are no villains in DeParle's story. He concludes with the observations of Angelica who attended Emory University. "I could have done some things better," she concludes, "and Emory could have done some things better. But I don't blame either one of us. Everyone knows life is unfair -- being low-income puts you at a disadvantage. I just didn't understand the extent of the obstacles I was going to have to overcome."

DeParle's and Angelica's hard-earned lessons are further driven home when they are read on the Times web site. It features a column of eight blogs and special features that help its readers navigate the complex process of preparing children for academic excellence. Guiding a child through the university selection and financing mazes can become a full-time job. One blogger writes, "wasn't it yesterday that I plunked down in the same chair, preparing for my oldest child's journey through the college admissions process? That child is now a college sophomore, working her tail off, adjusted and happy. And now I'm at it again, with child No. 2."

The Education section also has a feature devoted to the "simmering hope" known as MOOC. Massive Open Online Courses are the latest fad embraced by corporate reformers. Essentially, they allow large numbers of potential students to learn from university lecturers. As the Times reports, however, MOOCs may be inexpensive but they have not found a way to build connections between students and instructors. Online learning systems have not figured out the way to nurture the intimate relationships that are especially important for poor students making the leap to higher education.

We can only hope that the Obama administration's effort to improve access to college for poor kids will be informed by the lessons learned by welfare and public school reform. Both experiments were quick and cheap attempts to replace the old New Deal/Fair Deal coalition. Both were attempts to distance Democrats from old-fashioned liberalism. Both were guaranteed to allow progressives to repeat macho words like "work," "market-driven," "data, and "accountability." They allowed Democrats to treat some of their key constituencies as both Madonnas and whores. "Reformers" could embrace the previously rightwing condemnation of welfare recipients as welfare queens and teachers as lazy incompetents, protected by unions. Once they accepted their tough love, however, both groups of retrobates could be celebrated, Reagan-style, as heroes.

Perhaps our second term president can now face the hard facts. Whether we are discussing college access, the dropout rate, or welfare recipients who have used up their benefits, all roads to understanding go back to the deindustrialization of America. Sparked by the Energy Crisis of 1973, and accelerated by union-busting, Supply Side economics, and the financial engineering of the last generation, opportunities for the poor have shrunk. The economic decline was made worse by the decline of the family and the increase in socio-economic segregation. As has always been true, individuals, families, and educational and governmental institutions have made errors. The rise of social inequality, however, is the result of deep structural changes in our economy. There is no point in continuing the scapegoating.

DeParle reports that thirty years ago, there was a 31 point difference between the percentage of prosperous and poor Americans who earned college degrees, but now the gap is 45 points. Part of the problem is that the cost of a college education has increased by 60% in the last twenty years. Another problem is that low income students are increasing unprepared for higher education. He cites a study which shows that the test score performance gap between affluent and poor public school students has grown by 40%. All of the above are a threat to the American Dream. Our increasingly venomous political culture may be an equal threat.

If we want to restore education as a stepping stone, not an obstacle, to social equity, we need to remember that schooling is based on caring relationships between generations, as well as emotional connections between students and their subject matter. In schools serving neighborhoods of generational poverty, where there is a lack of social trust, we must nurture the bonds that unite people and ideas. And, whether we are discussing better welfare or educational systems, better online programs and tougher sanctions are no substitute for the people process of teaching, learning, and building stronger families and communities.

What do you think? What would it take for higher education and public schools to overcome the legacy of poverty? what would it take to overcome the rise of inequality and increases in socio-economic segregation?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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