The Failure of So Many Public School Students and Poverty: Symptoms of the Same Pathology

(this is an updated version of a post published in the fall of 2013)

In a post on the Blog of Diane Ravitch, she talked about the assertion of Michael Petrilli[i] that education can solve the problem of poverty. [This post was published in 2013 but the issue is every bit as cogent, today.]

It is my belief that understanding the relationship between poverty and the problems of our systems of education is essential to fixing education.

Michael Petrilli’s suggestion that education can fix poverty is correct, but I believe there is more to it than that. The causal relationship between poverty and the problems in our public schools is not a simple thing.  It is my assertion that poverty and the poor performance of so many American children are interdependent. It is a chicken versus the egg conundrum.

In this blog, Education, Hope and the American Dream and in my 2013 book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, I suggest that poverty, deteriorating neighborhoods, the failure of so many American children, low-performing schools, and burned out teachers are all symptoms of the same underlying pathology.

That we do not recognize the true nature of the relationship between poverty and the failure in our schools contributes greatly to the disappointment of education reforms over the past half century.

I, also, suggest that race has nothing to do with this failure, and the belief on the part of some American educators and many citizens that the academic performance of disadvantaged children, specifically children of color, is the best we can expect, also contributes greatly. The problem is not race; it is culture, with poverty playing an interdependent role.

There is an enormous population of multiple generations of American men and women who have always failed in school. These citizens, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black and other minorities, have lost faith and hope in the American dream. These Americans, living in poverty, reside under a blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness and no longer believe they possess control over the outcomes in their lives or that an education provides a way out for their children. This is a cultural phenomenon that leaves these children vulnerable to ravages of discrimination.

Consider what it would be like to be born into a family where your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents have all failed in school. What is the likelihood that anyone reared in such an environment would be expected to be successful in school? What is the probability that an individual child in such a family would arrive for their first day of school with an expectation that they will be successful? What is the probability that these children will grow up to be productive citizens of a participatory democracy?

Add to this that such families are part of an entire community of men and women who have always failed in school and who have little or no expectation that an education will provide a way out for their sons and daughters.  What such an environment creates is a culture of hopelessness and powerlessness that transcends race. The youngsters from this culture are not just black students or other minorities. There are white students and their families immersed in the same culture of minimal expectations; the same cycle of failure and poverty.  

During the first nine years of my career, when I was a juvenile probation officer, I met many such children. I have sat at kitchen tables sharing cups of coffee with the parents of these children; families lamenting that they have few hopes for their kids. Believe me, these parents love their children every bit as much as any other American family.

Such families, whatever their ethnicity, are part of a culture characterized by a disdain for education. These men and women do not trust their schools and teachers, they do not teach their  children to value education, and do not provide a home  environment that fosters a strong motivation to learn. How do parents provide such an environment for their children when they have never experienced it themselves?

We live in a time when the American dream has become meaningless to  many and they no longer view an education as a ticket to the dream.  The children from these cultural pockets throughout much of urban and rural America, arrive for their first day of school with precious little motivation to learn and even less preparation. There, they are greeted by an education process that is neither tasked, structured, nor resourced to respond to the challenges they present and they are greeted by teachers and administrators who are as much victims of that education process as their students.

With its focus on academic standards with arbitrary timetables and on testing to measure performance against those standard, our American educational process sets up for failure and humiliation, huge numbers of students. These kids who are our society’s most precious assets are, figuratively, chewed up and spit out by the education process despite the valiant efforts of dedicated and caring teachers. That we turn around and blame these same teachers for the failings of an obsolete education process is as unconscionable as it is unfathomable.

That educators and policy makers are bewildered that these children are disruptive, earn failing grades, and disappointing scores on state competency exams is, itself, bewildering. The pleas from teachers to parents for help and support are rejected by men and women who, themselves, are products of the same educational process. These mothers and fathers and grandparents do not trust the hands that reach out to help them.

In my book and blog, I reject the conventional wisdom about the reasons for the academic failure of a growing percentage of American children and offer an alternative hypothesis. I suggest that the problems with education in the U.S. are 1) this burgeoning cultural disdain for education on the part of parents and the resulting lack of motivation on the part of their children, and 2) an obsolete educational process that allows students to fail.

The very fact that children can fail contributes greatly to a reality in which so very many of them do. This will not change until we alter how we structure and organize schools and teachers and until we reinvent the way we teach. The Hawkins Model© is created to do just that.


[i] Michael Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Executive Editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States.

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