Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Sunday, December 23, 2012

NY Times: Low Income, High Achieving Students Still Struggle In Post-Secondary Life

The central tenet of education reform is that public education is failing students from low income families, particularly students of color, by failing to give them the "rigorous" training and skills that students from higher income families get.

Education reformers say if we just fire the teachers and close the schools where low income students are going and reopen these as "No Excuses!" charters or other reformy institutions, hold the teachers who teach these students to test-based accountability and evaluations and impose a rigorous, top-down curriculum of high standards, these students will flourish in their post-secondary lives.

The NY Times is running a front page story today that puts a lot of water onto that white-hot reform meme:

Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.” 

The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe. 

Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points. 

While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead. 

Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes. Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt. 

In placing their hopes in education, the Galveston teenagers followed a tradition as old as the country itself. But if only the prosperous become educated — and only the educated prosper — the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge. 

“It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.” 

 The Times looks at four high-achieving students from Galveston, Texas to illustrate the problem:

Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“I don’t want to work at Walmart” like her mother, she wrote to a school counselor. 

Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.” 

Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where  third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer. 

Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater. 

“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”
Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store. 

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net. 

The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions.

The struggles these students have suffered that have short-circuited their dreams have not been caused by "bad teachers," they are not due to "failing schools."

Economic inequality, a nation that has rigged its economic system and its social and political institutions for the benefit of the affluent - that's the problem:

Income has always shaped academic success, but its importance is growing. Professor Reardon, the Stanford sociologist, examined a dozen reading and math tests dating back 25 years and found that the gap in scores of high- and low-income students has grown by 40 percent, even as the difference between blacks and whites has narrowed. 

While race once predicted scores more than class, the opposite now holds. By eighth grade, white students surpass blacks by an average of three grade levels, while upper-income students are four grades ahead of low-income counterparts. 

“The racial gaps are quite big, but the income gaps are bigger,” Professor Reardon said.
One explanation is simply that the rich have clearly gotten richer. A generation ago, families at the 90th percentile had five times the income of those at the 10th percentile. Now they have 10 times as much. 

But as shop class gave way to computer labs, schools may have also changed in ways that make parental income and education more important. SAT coaches were once rare, even for families that could afford them. Now they are part of a vast college preparation industry. 

Certainly as the payoff to education has grown — college graduates have greatly widened their earnings lead — affluent families have invested more in it. They have tripled the amount by which they outspend low-income families on enrichment activities like sports, music lessons and summer camps, according to Professor Duncan and Prof. Richard Murnane of Harvard. 

In addition, upper-income parents, especially fathers, have increased their child-rearing time, while the presence of fathers in low-income homes has declined. Miss G. said there is a reason the triplets relied so heavily on boyfriends: “Their fathers weren’t there.” 

Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the affluent also enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials, a problem that would trail Melissa and Angelica in their journey through college. 

“Middle-class students get the sense the institution will respond to them,” Professor Lareau said. “Working-class and poor students don’t experience that. It makes them more vulnerable.” 

And so the result of all of this is that students from low income backgrounds who score higher on tests than students from more affluent backgrounds finish college far less.

There are no simple solutions to this problem, but there are solutions.

Lower class sizes in low income schools.

Provide a safety net for families.

Provide medical care.

Add more counselors and support staff.

Provide access to out-patient services for emotional health.

Give each student a "mentor" who can help them  navigate not only the secondary school process and college application process, but the post-secondary process.

Oh, and do what John Liu suggested last week - award students from low income backgrounds full ride scholarships to CUNY and SUNY.

Don't force them to take on tens of thousands of dollars of loan debt to go to college.

Raise taxes on millionaires and cut tuition and fees at SUNY and CUNY rather than the other way around, as Cuomo has done.

I teach high school seniors.

I keep in touch with many long after they've graduated.

I have helped students with all kinds of problems - from helping them to edit their papers to helping them with their taxes to helping them with career advice and resume preparation to using connections I might have to help them get an interview for a job to taking them to out-patient counseling or support programs to help them work through family or life traumas.  

I've gone to colleges and advocated for them when they needed that.

I take that kind of work as seriously as I do my in class teaching because I see my role as something larger than just "adding value" to my students' test scores.

Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee and Michael Bloomberg and Andrew Cuomo and Barack Obama may not think that kind of work is important.

Certainly the education policies they promote in which high stakes testing and accountability trumps everything else suggests they don't think much about the "other" work teachers and schools have to do to help students from low income backgrounds break whatever cycle they're stuck in.

But if the so-called education reformers really wanted to help students from low income backgrounds break the cycle of poverty, they would provide the social safety net and the school supports needed to do just that and would drop the FEAR-based, test-based accountability nonsense which is, quite frankly, only making things worse for these kids.

The reality is, Obama and Cuomo and Bloomberg and Klein and Rhee and Murdoch and the rest aren't interested in helping kids from low income backgrounds climb the economic ladder.

They're interested in perpetuating the current economic system that is very much rigged in the favor of the 1%.

Thomas Merton once said (I'm paraphrasing) that we should call things what they are and give them their proper name.

The name for an education reform movement that demonizes teachers and schools even as it ignores the real solutions to the vast problems kids from low income backgrounds face is "hypocritical."

They say they are putting "Students First" even as they put corporations first.

They use the motto "Children First.  Always" for the NYC school system as a slam at teachers even as they send kids to schools with cancer-causing toxins in them, or mold, or PCB's.

It is good to see this article in the Times, although it would have been nice to get this on a weekend other than the one before Christmas.

It needs to be read widely and used to rebut the claims of the Rhee's and Klein's and Bloomberg's and Cuomo's and Bush's and Obama's that we can fire our way to economic equality if we just evaluate teachers and schools with rigorous test-based accountability.

The more test-based accountability and Danielson nonsense they put onto teachers, the less time teachers have for the socio-emotional, career and life supports many try and provide their students.


  1. How do they get through the whole article without looking at California community colleges? WTF? This is one of the few avenues poor and lower middle class students have to achieve a college degree without going deep into debt. Texas? Of course TX is a piece of shit? What's new, Grey Lady? Is that as far west as you can see from the top of the World Trade Center, uh, Empire State Building, or whatever you've got left there for the myopic to gaze glossy-eyed from?


  2. Really interesting info! A good discussion about the system and how economical situation influence psychological and sociological aspects of our life. Thanks for sharing!