Equity & Diversity

Author Argues Poor Kids Should Be ‘Our Kids’

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 17, 2015 5 min read
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It’s hard to make schools the centers of their communities if the communities aren’t there.

In the newly released Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard University public-policy professor and longtime chronicler of the breakdown of American civic values, gathers a flood of research on the unraveling web of formal and informal supports that help students in poverty succeed academically and in life.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for America’s children isn’t good: In recent years, villages all over America, rich and poor, have deteriorated as we’ve shirked collective responsibility for our kids,” Mr. Putnam writes. “And most Americans don’t have the resources … to replace collective provision with private provision.”

The book comes as Congress debates the future of federal support for education to counter poverty, and Mr. Putnam harkened back to potential presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose 1996 book It Takes a Village made some of the same arguments.

Gaps in Mentoring

As they grow, children from low-income families are far less likely than more-affluent children to have access to support from adult mentors in their communities, a survey shows.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: The Mentoring Effect survey, 2013.

Mr. Putnam finds large and widening gaps—often beginning in the mid-1980s to early 1990s—across a slew of measures: from frequency of family dinners and how much families spend on children, to students’ test scores and participation in school-based extracurricular activities, to access to informal mentors and even children’s basic levels of trust in their neighbors and society. These “scissors” trends highlight every place a lifeline is being cut in the lives of children whose parents earned a high school diploma or less, according to Mr. Putnam.

“We knew there was increasing inequality, but we didn’t really understand it in the way it’s presented here,” said Gary M. King, the director for the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, who was not associated with Mr. Putnam’s book. “This is not just a bunch of trends that are interesting; this is a dramatic change in American life and is something we really need to pay attention to and do something about. Thinking about what kind of America we really want is essential.”

Mr. Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone looked at declining civic ties among adults, argues that students in poverty growing up in the middle of the last century had greater economic and social mobility than their counterparts do today in large part because adults at all socioeconomic levels were more likely then to see all students as “our kids.”

Adult Responsibility

The divide is exacerbated by an emerging demographic generation gap. A separate 2010 analysis shows public school support, for example, falls significantly in communities in which Americans over 65 outnumber those under 18 and differ from them racially. Nationwide, that demographic picture is becoming the norm in many communities, with seniors likelier to be wealthier and white, while schoolage children are becoming more likely to be poor and from racial minorities.

The wealthiest quarter of students in 2013 were two to three times more likely than students from the poorest 25 percent of families to have an adult mentor outside of the family. Mr. Putnam argued these informal relationships with adults—particularly adults outside the students’ economic class—are crucial to helping students find jobs, navigate the college application process, and create a support network.

In Mr. Putnam’s hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, several poor classmates in 1959 found mentors and academic supports through school sports and academic clubs. That’s less likely to happen today: Poor students’ participation in extracurricular activities fell from nearly 80 percent in the early 1980s to 65 percent in the mid-2000s. Wealthy students’ participation held steady at more than 85 percent during the same period.

Mr. Putnam directly ties education to economic and social class; he speaks interchangeably of poverty and earning a high school degree or less, and of wealth and earning at least a four-year college degree.

Schools are not to blame for the academic gap between rich and poor students that starts before kindergarten, but Mr. Putnam said in an interview that American public schools today have become “a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids.”

An analysis by the School Funding Law Center found that, as of 2012, 16 states had funding systems that provided less money per pupil to high-poverty school districts, while 17 provided more per-pupil spending to districts with greater poverty. (A 2014 update of the study suggests those trends have worsened. Only 14 states provided significantly more money to high-poverty schools; 19 states provided significantly less.)

Schools with 75 percent poverty or more offered one-third the number of Advanced Placement courses as wealthier schools in 2009-10—four each year on average compared to nearly a dozen each year at schools with 25 percent poverty or less.

Even where high-poverty schools get compensatory funding, Mr. Putnam found it is rarely sufficient to make up for the differences in what teachers and students face. For example, high-poverty schools have more than twice as many disciplinary problems as low-poverty schools, and “equal numbers of guidance counselors cannot produce equal college readiness if the counselors in poor schools are tied up all day in disciplinary hearings,” Mr. Putnam wrote.

As a result, nearly 15 years after the federal education law was revised to “leave no child behind,” an analysis of National Education Longitudinal Study data finds that even the brightest students in poverty can’t get ahead. Students in the poorest quarter of families who performed in the top third on national mathematics achievement were slightly less likely to graduate college than the worst math performers in the wealthiest quarter of families, 29 percent versus 30 percent.

Building a Bridge

The grim outlook for students in poverty is a major problem for schools, which increasingly are judged on their ability to close achievement gaps and boost academic outcomes for poor students.

The book offers suggestions on ways educators can help rebuild poor students’ social and educational supports:

• Tailor school-based, parent-involvement programs to specific skills and supports. For example, Mr. Putnam suggests that rather than simply asking parents to “read to your child every day,” schools can offer coaching on specific skills, like questioning-and-response practices;

• Build more community-school partnerships to provide health, social services, and enrichment activities for students in schools; and

• Ensure that students in poverty have access to both advanced courses and strong career-training, even in high-poverty schools.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Book Argues All Kids Should Be ‘Our Kids’


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