Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Reality Check: Poverty and Education

The connection between poverty and failure in our urban public schools needs to be placed in a community spotlight.

I was moved and challenged by two responses to a recent post on public education. What makes these words so important is that they come from teachers who understand the problem and observe, on a daily basis, the connection between poverty and poor performance in the classroom.

Here's what the teachers reported:

"My first year teaching public school I learned a difficult lesson about that very thing. One of my students was a 16-year-old girl who was raised by her mother. She had 3 sisters and 4 cousins, all younger. Her grades were average and she tried to sleep a lot in class. When I took the time to find out what was going on, I discovered that her mom worked two jobs while she took care of everything else. By the time she had made dinner, helped with bath time and got everyone else to bed, she was too tired to do her homework. I guess, what I saw in her case (which I suppose is true in many) is that students in poverty have many more things that weigh heavily on them that middle-class kids don't. When you're struggling just to stay fed and clothed, it puts your education lower on the list of priorities."

"Thank you for your comments on public education. I am a committed Christian educator teaching in a public school, and believe that my calling is to be right where I am - not separated and cloistered away from the world, but right in the middle of the circumstances that young people face each day. Sometimes I grow very discouraged - the political climate of education is stressing me out! We are charged with making all society's ills go away while parents frequently abdicate their role to educators. Other parents are unable to respond to the needs of their children because they are ill equipped to do so, being overly busy trying to make ends meet, to provide for their families. This past year, I had a young man who was more than just difficult... when I spoke to his mother, I found out that she was working 2 jobs just so they could have a place to live and food to eat - she did not have health care, and was desperate to know what she could do to support me and her son. My heart goes out to this dear woman. I made her son a special project, and we made progress. Nevertheless, this dear lady was in need - we must advocate for people such as this woman."

Many people who criticize public education simply don't understand what is going on inside our schools and in the neighborhoods surrounding them. Bad public policy affects our schools and the children who attend them. Possibly our apathy is the result of our lack of understanding about the connection between poverty and the challenges of public education today, especially in urban centers.

If we really want to understand, listening to our teachers may be a good place to start.

Any action taken to undermine poverty and its spread will also be a move toward improved public schools. There is a connection. We need more people exploring and understanding it.


epic said...

It's interesting that both of these teachers were dealing with students who appear to have had no Dad involved in their lives.

Larry, how strong is the correlation between poverty and "no Dad involved"? In addition to supporting those in this circumstance, what can we do to promote having children only in marriage and having strong marriages? It seems that often the decision to become pregnant just propogates poverty.

JBS said...

I am a minister in a church who is blessed to be married to a minister in our public schools. My wife is an elementary music teacher at a school that is mostly low-income students and I am constantly encouraged by the ministry she and the other educators provide these students and their community.

I am discouraged by the inability of the Texas legislature to come anywhere close to educational reform that actually makes sense to educators.

I am also discouraged by the fractured response of the church to the social needs of our communities, including educational reform. The church is fracturing into homeschool, private school, and public school camps. While I am sure all three groups have some valid perspectives, I am troubled by how the varied approaches dilute the impact of the church on the community.

I wonder what would happen if a church put aside its personal opinions about education and worked together to bless the public schools in its area. What would happen if the church got actively involved in the lives of the students and families within those local schools. How might we be apart of educational and societaly reform?

While I recognize the value of private schools and while I am more than aware of the present dangers in the public schools, I cannot help but wonder what an army of Christ's compassion do on the local level in some of the Texas schools and communities.

I realize such a public expression of faith is rare in this world of privatized faith but I cannot help but wonder...

Larry James said...

Great comments!

Epic, my experience tells me that the birth of children without fathers in the home or in marriage is also a product of poverty. Not to say that this same thing does not happen in more affluent communities. But there are forces at work in impoverished communities that contribute to the phenomenon in ways I never understood until I moved here. I believe it is naive and not a little foolish to embark on marriage enrichment efforts without addressing in a systemic manner the issues of poverty that affect families and especially young men and women.

jbs, what a challenging and "right on" post! I have long believed and contended publically (with fairly heated critical response!) that the abandonment of public schools, especially in urban communities, by affluent Christians has played a major role in the decline of the entire system. While the issues facing urban communities and public education cannot be isolated only to this one fact of life in the nation, it is clear that people of faith and means have often turned away from this public responsibility and opportunity.

I agree. You are married to a minister.

Terry said...

Larry and others,

I believe that Christ can shine in both public and private school. The fact that many are not moving and putting their faith into actions can be found in both places. The largest christian schools are our public schools. Many christians walks the hallways everyday. There are many and a lot more than the small christian schools we have. This is true on the secondary as well as collegiate. Let's mobilize all these christians in the public and private. We continue to think small, but there is a large army in our public schools even in the inner city. Putting your faith to work is what we should be teaching. Our affluent privates school have their own set of issues many are the same as innercity school. So, let's get busy!!!