David Brooks wrote a column that ran in the New York Times on May 1 that got me thinking. In it, he points out that the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood that Freddie Gray lived in was not exactly neglected. Yes, Gray was poor. But when Kurt Schmoke was mayor, he got the famous Baltimore developer James Rouse and Habitat for Humanity to pour more than $130 million into new homes and new school curriculum, new job training programs and so on for Gray’s neighborhood. Townhouses were built for $87,000 and sold to residents for $37,000. Today, the schools in the city spend more than $15,000 per pupil. Nationwide, Brooks points out, the federal government spends more than $14,000 per person on antipoverty programs. Nonetheless, Freddie Gray left school four grade levels behind. By the time he died, he had been arrested more than a dozen times.
Brooks does not offer a solution for Baltimore or the Freddie Grays who grow up there, but he does not think it is money. He thinks the social fabric in Baltimore and all the places like it around the country is breaking down, that the informal web of rules that make life predictable and possible to negotiate are fraying at the edges for the Freddie Grays of the world.
I am constantly told by my critics that it is unfair and unreasonable for me to compare student performance in the United States to the performance of students in the top performing countries because there is so much more poverty among children in the United States than in those countries. The implication is that, if the rate of poverty among students in the United States was as low as it is in the top performing countries, then the achievement of our students would match that in the top performing countries.
And I respond by pointing out that factory wages in the wealthiest Chinese provinces are now about one quarter of average factory wages in the United States. By that calculus, most of the Chinese in the wealthiest provinces are poor by American standards, and more to the point, wages in the coastal provinces in China were one one-hundredth of U.S. wages well after Deng Xiao Ping took over and opened the Chinese economy to foreign investment. The vast majority of Shanghainese lived then in a kind of abject poverty rarely seen anywhere now in the United States. Yet Shanghai students now outperform U.S. students by a country mile. Much the same thing is true of Singapore.
If you think about it that way, it becomes clear that very poor countries, countries much poorer than the poorest of American states, poorer than the poorest of American cities, have been able to outperform American schools. Poverty, looked at that way, is no excuse for poor school performance.
But what if, as Brooks points out, money is not per se the problem? What if anger, despair, lack of hope, a deep distrust of authority and a conviction that it is hardly worth trying because the cards are completely stacked against you—suppose that is the problem. Suppose that you are surrounded by people you identify with who think that getting an education won’t make any difference because no one will offer them or you a job anyway. Suppose you live in a place that has no economic future no matter how well educated you are and, for a host of reasons, leaving is not an option. Suppose you live in a place that does have an economic future, but that future belongs to people whose economic strategy is using your labor at the lowest possible cost and you have no prospect at all of moving to their side of the fence. Suppose the adults you identify with in the community have lost their good jobs and are now greeters at Walmart or have no jobs at all or even the prospect of a job. Suppose the only way that anyone will think you are worth anything is if you join a gang and do what the members tell you to do and do it well. Suppose no one you know believes in you and you don’t believe in yourself.
Go back fifty years and we can see that there used to be a whole raft of institutions on which most of us could rely for support in situations of the kind I just described, ranging from the Elks and bowling clubs to your church and your extended family. But bowling clubs and fraternal organizations like the Elks are in decline, as is church attendance. Marriage is in decline, too, and so therefore is the nuclear family, to say nothing of strong extended families. Individuals are now, more than ever, on their own, so that the growing number of people who I have just described have less and less emotional support at a time when they need more support.
Now consider the teacher in this environment. Imagine an environment in which parents’ expectations—if there are parents—are very low for both themselves and their children. Whoever is taking care of the kids is depressed and angry and losing hope. School seems irrelevant to the students because it does not look like a way out. Teachers who started out full of ambition for themselves and their students find themselves coming to school every day facing students who are listless or angry or withdrawn or looking for trouble—anything but eager to learn—and whoever is responsible for them at home has either given up or is basically hostile to any authority including or sometimes especially school authorities.
I have no idea what proportion of American parents, teachers, schools and communities I am describing, but I have no doubt but that it is large and growing. You will find communities like this in our cities and in deeply isolated rural communities. They are White, African American, Latino, and American Indian. They are never very far away.
As Brooks points out, the steady increase in government aid to the poor since the 1960s has changed the face of poverty in the United States, putting a financial floor under many people and communities that was not there before. It is not the money. It is the anger, frustration and despair. It is the sense of a broken compact, of having done what was expected and being abandoned and forgotten and not valued anyway. The big difference between China and Singapore, on the one hand, and the United States on the other, is not the money. It the presence or absence of hope, of belief that hard work will pay off, of a future that is there to be had for those who buckle down, take tough courses and study hard in school. The eastern European immigrants of the turn of the last century did all that because they saw their new home as a land of promise for those willing to work hard. Those European immigrants were just like the Shanghainese and the Singaporeans. School was for all of them the key to a brilliant future. My guess is that, for those who teach in the American communities I have just described, the choices feel very limited. One way to cope is to blend in by accepting the local outlook and seeing one’s job as doing one’s best in a situation in which no reasonable person would expect very much of the students or oneself. Another is to get out of teaching. The third choice, to set and hold, year after year, high expectations for the students and oneself, when everyone around you has rejected that option, must seem out of reach for many teachers who are good people but not saints.
If that is an accurate portrayal of what is happening in many schools and communities in the United States, then it is not the poverty per se that is the problem. It is the sign over the door that says “abandon hope all ye who enter here.” And that is exactly what we cannot—must not—do. The schools that are working in places like those I just described—and there are such schools—are schools in which the faculty commit themselves to an ethic of hope and culture of high expectations for every student in their care. It is essential in such situations that the faculty view the children in their care not just as students but as human beings who more than anything else have a need for someone who cares about them and who believes in them. It is only when they believe that they could have a future that they will invest in doing what is necessary to have one.
It is not possible for single teachers to create such schools. It really takes a community, or at least a whole faculty, and it takes the kind of leadership that is capable of creating such a community inside the school. It is a tall order, but there are enough such schools all around us to give us the confidence that it can be done. Once again, we find that the moral driver of our work is not the techniques of teaching reading. It is our belief in our students and their belief in themselves.
The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.