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Poverty and Educational Opportunity

Historically, most Americans have worshipped the free market. If poverty becomes widespread, liberals blame poorly funded schools. They reason that as long as children have access to good public schools, anyone who works can succeed. Conservatives like President Bush suggest that permissive public school teachers and unions tolerate and encourage bad habits among children of the poor. Both perspectives unfairly scapegoat public schools and the children of the poor.

Pessimism about overall US performance on international tests is rampant, but clearly unjustified. President Bush has argued that our public schools can't teach reading. Yet in a recent international literacy test for nine and ten year olds, US children statistically tied for third.

These international test scores deserve more careful breakdowns than they receive in mainstream media. When treated as a separate nation, US white children scored number one on this test, even beating top ranked Sweden.

American education is failing, but not in the ways conservatives assume. Poor and minority children are failing. We don't need elaborate testing to find failing schools. As one critic has quipped, zip codes would do just fine. The schools that serve poor and minority children lack the teacher training, smaller classes, and quality preschool programs that enhance the performance of our best public schools.

Nonetheless, even these reforms leave one vital question: Can good schools compensate for deficiencies in children's lives outside of school? In a recent article in the Teacher's College Record, Arizona State University Professor David Berliner reminds us that over the course of a school year, children spend about five times as many waking hours with family and neighborhood friends as they do in school.

Historically some conservatives have argued that school can't make up for bad genes, which are viewed as the real cause of poor school performance and poverty. Berliner replies by reminding us of the hideous example of children brought up in a closet, whose capacity for physical growth, language acquisition, and intellectual functioning could not be developed. He then cites Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin's thought experiment: Plant two batches of seed corn, one in good soil with sufficient water and sun, the other in soil lacking exposure to sun and suitable nutrients. The seeds planted in good conditions will do on the whole much better. They will also show more differences among themselves than those planted in poor conditions, none of which will thrive. There are genetic differences among individual seeds, but for those in poor conditions, the full genetic capacity cannot be expressed. But to an observer who neglects the history of these plants, the seeds developing in poor soil could be viewed as "inherently deficient."

More recently, work in the social sciences on mothers of mono and dizygotic twins shows analogous results. At the lowest socio-economic class, environment is a very strong predictor of measured IQ. In other words, though there are differences in various capacities among all human beings, our poorest citizens have very little chance to develop the full range of their capacities.

Critics of US education often complain that European schools are more rigorous and achieve better results. They forget that European schools start with smaller percentages of disadvantaged youngsters and that even the disadvantaged benefit from more services than comparable US children enjoy. A recent UNICEF study puts the childhood poverty rates in the Scandinavian countries at fewer than 5% of the population. UNICEF's figure for the United States is 21%. When US families become poor, they are also far more likely to remain poor than are the poor in any other major industrial democracy.

The good news suggested by such studies is that modest improvements in the environment of the poorest children can bring large gains in academic performance. We know less than we should about what factors in the environment of the poor are most limiting. Nonetheless, it seems clear that nutritious food, access to health care and books, and a secure living environment are crucial.

Historically, Americans are more sympathetic to impoverished children than to their parents. Berliner's work suggests it is hard to help children without assuring at least minimal security for parents. Impoverished parents have a hard time providing adequate food and housing for their children. Their child care costs often exceed the rewards of the job. Allocations for child care under the 1997 welfare "reform" have consistently fallen far short of real need.

As I write this commentary, Congress is debating further reductions in food stamp and Medicaid programs. The value of the minimum wage in inflation adjusted terms continues to decline. Reductions in these supports for the working poor are not only wrong in themselves, they also make claims of equality of opportunity for our children a cruel joke.

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John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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