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Equity & Diversity Opinion

The ‘Wave’ of Poverty Flows Through Schools

By George Stranahan — July 09, 2012 4 min read
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The “wave” is an example of a flowing, sequential rhythm achieved in a packed stadium when successive groups of spectators briefly stand and raise their arms. Immediately after stretching to full height, the spectators return to their usual seated positions. The result is a wave of rising spectators that surges through the crowd, even though individual spectators never move away from their seats. The wave begins when a vertical line of people, say along an aisle, from top row to bottom stands up and then immediately sits down. The persons just to one side or another rise as soon as their neighbor sits down. The only command or rule that can be said to be the cause of a wave: Stand up when your neighbor sits down, and then immediately sit down yourself.

I’ve seen it on YouTube. Eighty thousand humans in an emergent self-organized motion traveling, I estimate, at greater than 40 miles an hour. In other species, we see similar phenomena: army ants, a bee swarm, flocks of birds or fishes, the “V formation” flight of geese … But the people in the wave first and foremost come together because of their shared excitement about the struggle of the game before them, the victory and the defeat, and our modern equivalent of gladiators. They didn’t come to make a wave; there is no self-interest in making a wave. There is no cause for this event; it simply emerges from the situation.

Students of complex systems, such as this one, describe “emergence” as a bulk phenomenon that you never could have guessed would result from examining the parts. Historian George Dyson has said that emergent behavior is that which cannot be predicted through analysis of any level simpler than that of the system as a whole. While the parts each participate in the behavior, the behavior is a property of the whole. Because emergence is large-scale and a bit unexplainable, it’s a temptation to use it to explain sociological structures that are large-scale and unexplainable.

 I wonder in what kind of school would children of poverty thrive. Ah, and would we dare build such a school for them?"

I’m going to suggest that poverty is an emergent phenomenon in any complex human society, and that it yields to no analysis at any level simpler than that of the system as a whole. It doesn’t matter what seat you are in at the stadium or how much it cost; when you stand up, for no reason of self-interest whatsoever, you are part of the wave. Similarly, we are each and all of us part of poverty.

Many things correlate with poverty: crime, drugs, gangs, broken families, poor schools and poor academic achievement, and a certain collection of “attitudes.” None of these is particularly a cause or effect; they are simply descriptions of the emergent phenomenon.

It is public policy, notably the No Child Left Behind Act—the current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—at the national level, that schools and teachers will be punished until the academic-achievement gap between rich and poor is eliminated. Every state has devised academic standards and standardized tests to measure the gap, and the results 10 years later are that the punishments didn’t work at all. Let’s imagine for the moment that it had worked, and that children born and living in poverty were testing just as well academically as their better-off classmates. Can anyone possibly believe that therefore poverty is eliminated? John Goodlad wisely said: “Healthy nations have healthy schools, it’s not the other way around.”

We understand that all men are not necessarily created equal and that life outcomes are not likely to all be equal. Our sense of fairness and democracy is that if we have provided equal opportunity for all, we have acquitted ourselves of further responsibility. Schools have been the chosen venue for providing this equal opportunity. It appears to be federal policy that equal test scores are all the evidence we need for acquittal.

I agree strongly that schools should provide an experience that amounts to equal opportunity. Whether this significantly changes the overall situation of poverty, it is the right thing to do. The schools have traditionally had a heavy academic focus; standardized tests have accentuated this and forced instruction into a one-size-fits-all experience—learn to do well on academic standardized tests. We do this even though we know that no two children learn alike.

We know that the character of the adult, the habits of the heart and the habits of the mind, are largely determined by the experiences of the young child, especially before the age of 5. Might it not be, that for children brought up in poverty, these habits tend toward little aptitude for or enjoyment of academics? This would be one explanation of why the NCLB effort has not moved the needle on the achievement gap or dropout rates. If I assume this to be true, I wonder in what kind of school would children of poverty thrive. Ah, and would we dare build such a school for them?

In the meantime, ignoring Goodlad’s wisdom, we lean on our schools and blame them: “Why haven’t you solved the poverty problem yet? Get rid of those bad teachers and get on with it.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as The ‘Wave’ of Poverty Flows Through Schools

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