Saturday, February 21, 2009

Two Types of Poor

Yesterday I read Odd Man Out by Matt McCarthy, a former minor league baseball player turned doctor. It was a nice break from the education themed books; one I would recommend if you are interested in the culture of baseball. But this morning, I've determined the next book I will read, Work Hard. Be Nice. by Washington Post education beat journalist, Jay Mathews.

Richard D. Kahlenberg reviews the book in tommorrow's print edition. Over time, I certainly would have picked up the book, but a statement from Kahlenberg's review forced me to ask the question, Are there two types of poor?

Kahlenberg writes:
Moreover, KIPP's experience does little to rebut the longstanding social-science consensus that poverty and segregation reduce achievement because in many respects KIPP schools more closely resemble middle-class than high-poverty public schools. KIPP does not educate the typical low-income student but rather a subset fortunate enough to have striving parents who take the initiative to apply to a KIPP school and sign a contract agreeing to read to their children at night.
Before reading this review, I did not realize that there existed typical and atypical low-income students. I had no idea that a subset, to use his term, of poor families did not want their child to do well in school and therefore would take no initiative to fill out an application.
From my experiences at a low-income school, and again, I can only speak honestly about my experiences, the vast majority of parents, if not all, want their children to do well in life. The difference does not lie in initiative, it lies in social capital and the understanding of how to navigate a burdensome system.
To cast a wide blanket over low-income families who do not apply to schools like KIPP as lacking initiative is to unfairly judge those families.


At 4:40 PM , Blogger Amerloc said...

I've observed (in nearly 30 years of teaching - the last half of that time at a school fairly classified as low income) one set of parents who felt threatened by the possibility that their kids might do better than they had, and who therefor didn't really want their kids to do very well. They were (and are) by any measure, a statistical outlier.

I've known and known of far more parents who feel as if the effort is pointless: no matter how hard they've worked, they've never gotten "ahead"; it's not that they don't want their children to have more or do better than they did: they honestly believe that making sure their kids know how to survive on very little is vital in a world that will do nothing but slam doors in their faces, and certainly more important than filling out applications that will result in rejection, and getting the laundry done (or just zoning out in front of the latest version of reality tv) is more important than reading.

I think you're right: it's about social capital and navigational skills. You've just got me wondering how we give it to the kids if their parents have lost their optimism.

At 2:54 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Amerloc, you are wondering what so many in urban education struggle with. We know that we have to influence the individual students. But how do we do that? If you solve that problem before me, consider giving me 1% of your earnings for being the one to make you wonder :)

At 8:46 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a time, when I was young, my family was on Welfare. My mother needed to sharpen her skills to return to the workforce and support her five children; my father provided many excuses but little child support. During that time, my mother made sure we watched Leonard Bernstein on tv each Saturday. She took us to free concerts and free Shakespeare in the park. We ate dinner together every night and played games involving spelling, geography and quizzing each other from the Almanac or read to each other. She begged to get us into certain schools and sent us out to work for money to help pay for our schooling. Most of my neighborhood friends who were only slightly better economically had nothing like this in their family situations. Some came from constant fights about how they should be raised, some came from drug/alcohol culture parents, some came from depressed parents, some came from invisible parents who were too busy to be involved. There are, in fact, all kinds of poor people and there can be real differences in the way children are prepared for school. Certainly we see that in our urban classrooms. I noticed the difference when I went from teaching in a Catholic school, where the parents, no matter how poor, generally expected their children to justify the money being spent on them, to the public school where many students were ill-prepared for school success. It makes me think that Kahlenberg has a point.


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