The Long Shadow of Poverty and School Segregation by Income

One of the serious problems posed by the likely Trump administration’s policy on public education is that it sidesteps entirely the deeply troubling challenges on the ground for children and their teachers.  While the only education idea being mentioned by the new administration is the rapid expansion of privatization—a kind of school choice which has shown itself not only to be unavailable to the poorest children but also threatening to the financial stability of the public schools in the poorest communities, there is indisputable evidence that the standardized test scores by which we now judge schools derive far more from poverty and economic segregation than the school teachers we are blaming.  Yet addressing poverty both outside the school and inside has slipped off the radar as, once again, the proposal to privatize is being prescribed as a remedy.

Last fall’s issue of the Russell Sage Journal, The Coleman Report and Educational Inequality Fifty Years Later (Vol 2, No 5) calls our attention back to the matter we need to be considering. The journal is edited by Karl Alexander, the Johns Hopkins University sociologist who authored a longitudinal study reaching back to the 1982 first grade year of a group of Baltimore’s young adults: The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood. Alexander introduces the collection of articles with a short history of 50 years of research on the topics of The Coleman Report: Is It Family or School? Getting the Question Right.  His topic and the subject of all the studies in this journal is to further untangle and identify the many strands of the opportunity gap across our nation’s schools.

Alexander explains that The Coleman Report, published in 1966, has been misconstrued over the years by those who have used it to prove that “schools make no difference” and to insist that we accept a binary explanation for school achievement as driven (or held back)  by either the school or the family.

Here, according to Alexander is what may be fairly concluded from the 1966 research of James Coleman and his colleagues: Family background is of great importance for school achievement; the influence of the family does not appear to diminish over the child’s school years. Neither the impact of one school or another nor the impact of facilities nor the impact of curriculum is as great as the impact of the student’s family background. Of in-school factors that matter to children, the teacher is the most important.  Finally, “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

Overall, writes Alexander as he summarizes the meaning of The Coleman Report: “Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all: The schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context.”  Alexander elaborates: “In fact, school influence on children’s achievement is so deeply embedded in children’s family life that they hardly are separate.  These tight linkages across institutional contexts additionally imply that the social organization of schooling, as constructed back then and still today, functions mainly to maintain or reproduce children’s place in the social order. To illustrate, in 2005 nationally, poor students were in the majority in 84 percent of schools with minority enrollments of 90 to 100 percent; in schools with minority enrollments of 10 percent or less, just 18 percent of schools had majority low-poverty enrollments.  The insight that the social composition of the student body is the strongest school-based correlate of student achievement, independent of the child’s family background, pinpoints the particular mechanism that channels family influence through the school: neighborhood residential segregation… High poverty neighborhoods and high-poverty schools are population aggregates.  Their properties do not inhere in any single family, and they have consequences beyond those located at the interior of family life… As the national commitment to school desegregation has waned, segregation at the school level has increased…”

Alexander briefly reviews five decades of research on the effects of family, school, and neighborhood (including residential segregation) and summarizes: “Attempts to parse the ‘whether’ of school versus family seek a definitive answer, but this false dichotomy fundamentally misconstrues the backdrop to children’s learning.  Family matters, to be sure, but school also matters, and it is how the two intersect that sets children on their developmental paths… In generating opportunity, family and school are indeed in tension, but it is a tension not captured in the ‘school versus family’ framing…. (W)hat counts is the balance between private family resources and public resources in support of children’s learning.  At present, the private and public resources invested in children’s schooling are highly unequal, and they favor families of means.”

Alexander adds, however, that even the poorest schools are positively impacting the lives and learning of their students: “But it also needs to be said that schools do not simply reinforce patterns of family advantage and disadvantage. Rather, poor children fall behind when their learning depends on the sparse resources available to them at home and in their communities. Their schools, even those burdened by concentrated poverty, help them to keep up academically. From research on summer learning loss we learn that the portion of school influence that is separable from family serves to lift up poor children, not hold them back.”

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Personal Grit Won’t Do It; We Must Address Structural Inequality

It’s becoming clear that the American Dream is increasingly a myth, that America is not really a meritocracy, and that it’s become virtually impossible to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” these days if you are very poor.  The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz describes today’s America: “The simple story of America is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being hollowed out… Disparities in household income are related to disparities in wages and in wealth and income from capital—and inequality in both is increasing.” (The Price of Inequality, 2012, p. 7)

Among poor children, income inequality is reinforced by unequal access to education and our society’s fragmented and uneven attempts to do anything about it.  Sociologist Karl Alexander and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University explain the results of a longitudinal study that has tracked the lifetime trajectory of students who were first graders in Baltimore in 1982.  Alexander and his colleagues remind us that for students they call “the urban disadvantaged,” social mobility has always been lacking and our attempts to assist children sporadic and inadequate: “There is no simple or single solution to children’s academic challenges.  Rather, small influences accumulate to produce large and lasting consequences… We believe that help at strategic points could boost prospects for more of the urban disadvantaged to get ahead through school.  For disadvantaged children, however, the school improvement agenda typically is served a la carte or piecemeal.  Many reforms have been tried and some of them hold great promise, but as a society we have yet to implement those reforms systematically in concert and with a sustained commitment.” Alexander and his colleagues suggest that if we did all of the following and did them systemically, it might make a significant difference: provide high quality preschool; address the residential segregation that defines hypersegregated, hyperpoverty neighborhoods; reduce class size; provide engaging summer and after-school programs; ensure well-qualified, well-prepared and well-compensated teachers in the poorest communities; ensure challenging standards and curricula with instructional scaffolding to ensure that children can achieve what is expected; integrate schools economically; and make classrooms respectful of all cultures and the needs of all kinds of parents. (The Long Shadow, 2014, pp. 178-179).

Sociologist Patrick Sharkey explains that economic inequality too often tracks race: “(B)eing raised in a high-poverty neighborhood is extremely rare for whites… but is the norm for African Americans.  Among children born from 1955 through 1970, only 4 percent of whites were raised in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty, compared to 62 percent of African Americans.  Three out of four white children were raised in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty, compared to just 9 percent of African Americans.  Essentially no white children were raised in neighborhoods with at least 30 percent poverty, but three in ten African Americans were.  These figures reveal that African American children born from the mid-1950s to 1970 were surrounded by poverty to a degree that was virtually nonexistent for whites.”  (Stuck in Place, 2013, pp. 26-27)

Focusing on families in the white middle class during the decades Alexander and Sharkey describe, Robert Putnam explains: “Though it might seem natural to label them ‘self-made,’ in many unnoticed ways they benefited from family and community supports that are nowadays less readily available to kids from such modest  backgrounds.  They grew up in an era when public education and community support for kids from all backgrounds managed to boost a significant number of people up the ladder…. Those supportive institutions, public and private, no longer serve poorer kids so well.”  Putnam notes that today’s inequality makes it difficult for those who are not poor to see and understand how poverty is experienced: “Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives.  So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.” (Our Kids, 2015, pp 229-230)

Maybe it is because our society is so segregated by economics as well as race, and maybe it is partly partly because older Americans remember the post WWII years when white families at least experienced more social mobility, many seem drawn to books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, the 2012 best seller about saving poor black children through character education.  If overcoming structural poverty seems too difficult and too expensive for our society to undertake,  maybe we can help poor children overcome their disadvantages by teaching grit and determination.  Tough quotes the academic research of Angela Duckworth, who developed a grit scale to measure  students’ determination.  The students with more grit did better at the National Spelling Bee and were less likely to drop out of West Point. How Children Succeed is a feel-good book and its theory has served as the justification for a lot of behaviorist charter schools that focus on toughening children up, but it contains no ideas for ameliorating structural poverty and growing inequality.

Mike Rose, the education writer and professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, just posted a new piece on his own blog (and also as a guest post in Valerie Strauss’s column) decrying “grit” as a solution to educational inequality: “One of the many frustrating things about education policy and practice in our country is the continual search for the magic bullet…. One such bullet is the latest incarnation of character education, particularly the enthrallment with ‘grit,’ a buzz word for perseverance and determination… I worry about the limited success of past attempts at character education and the danger in our pendulum-swing society that we will shift our attention from improving subject matter instruction… And I fear that we will sacrifice policies aimed at reducing poverty for interventions to change the way poor people see the world.”

Rose has also read Angela Duckworth’s research, and he gives Duckworth and her colleagues credit for honesty about the qualifications and limitations of their study; they did not oversell their theory:  “The studies are correlational, so do not demonstrate causality… But Duckworth and her colleagues did something that in retrospect was a brilliant marketing strategy, a master stroke of branding—or re-branding.  Rather than calling their construct ‘perseverance’ or ‘persistence,’ they chose to call it ‘grit.’  Can you think of a name that has more resonance in American culture?  The fighter who is all heart.  The hardscrabble survivor.  True Grit.  The Little Train that Could.  Grit exploded.  New York Times commentators, best-selling journalists, the producers of This American Life, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, educational policy makers and administrators all saw the development of grit as away to improve American education, and more pointedly, to improve the achievement of poor children, who, everyone seemed to assume, lacked grit.”

Rose is certainly not opposed to character traits of discipline and perseverance: “Let me repeat here what I’ve written in every other commentary on grit.   Of course, perseverance is an important characteristic.” He points out, however, that the victims of our latest “grit” fad are the very children who, it is assumed, will be the beneficiaries of programs in character education:  “Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids.  As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face… I realize that what grit advocates want is to help young people better cope with such hardship… But if as a society we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax, building aspiration and determination for a world that will not fulfill either.”

Rose concludes: “It is hard to finish what you begin when food and housing are unstable, or when you have three or four teachers in a given year, or when there are few people around who are able to guide and direct you.  It is equally hard to pursue a career with consistency when jobs available to you are low-wage, short-term and vulnerable, and have few if any benefits or protections… Personality psychology by its disciplinary norms concentrates on the individual, but individual traits and qualities, regardless of how they originate and develop, manifest themselves in social and institutional contexts.”  Justice must be systemic; it cannot be achieved one child at a time by schools that emphasize the development of grit.

Child Poverty Rate Falls Slightly But Poverty Still Casts a Long Shadow

Earlier this week the Census released data for 2013 showing that child poverty fell to approximately 20 percent.  Despite the slight improvement, one in five American children still lives below the federal poverty line of $18,769 for a single-parent family of three.  According to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), “Almost 9 percent of children—6.5 million—were in ‘deeply poor’ families with cash incomes under half of the poverty level (around $9,300 in 2013 for a family of three.)”  Children are far more likely than adults to be poor, and children of color are far more likely to be poor than white children. Last year 38.3 percent of black children were poor and 30.4 percent of Hispanic children were poor, while only 10.7 percent of white children were poor.  According to CLASP’s report, “Children under age three had the highest poverty rates, and the prevalence of poverty was highest during these earliest, most formative years of children’s lives—with potentially lasting consequences for education, health, and other key outcomes.”

Writing for the NY Times on Wednesday, Thomas Edsall examines the issue of how to intervene in the cycle of poverty to help children transcend their parents economic circumstances.  Exploring a well-known Moving to Opportunity study, which tracked whether academic achievement improved for children whose families were given housing vouchers to move to less poor neighborhoods, Edsall explains that moving did not seem to improve the children’s accomplishments at school.  He interviewed Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who points out that flaws in the study may have affected its results.  Wilson notes that while many of the families in the study left public housing, they “moved to segregated neighborhoods nonetheless, far from employment opportunities…. Social conditions were only marginally better than those they had left.”  Edsall also interviewed another Harvard sociologist, Robert Sampson, who explains that “many of the adults in the program had lived in extreme poverty for decades and that the children, who were on average 11 years old when they entered the program, had spent their early years living in adversity.”

Edsall concludes, “Multigenerational poverty is self-evidently more than a question of housing.  It is unlikely to yield to even the best-intentioned one-dimensional approach… We have to figure out a better way to approach intervention, whether it’s education-based or neighborhood-based or both.”

For a deeper exploration of the issues facing children who grow up in poverty, one can turn to a recently published and unusual longitudinal study of the lives of a sizeable group of children in Baltimore.  The authors, sociologists from Johns Hopkins University—Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson—tracked 790 children from 1982 when they entered first grade in twenty elementary schools in Baltimore until they reached adulthood. The children who are the subject of the study in The Long Shadow reside in several poor and working class census tracts.  Year after year the researchers interviewed the children, their families, and their teachers:

“Members of the Youth Panel were six-year-old children when we first entered their lives in 1982 and young adults when we exited in 2006.  Their voices are heard throughout this volume by way of wide-ranging conversations with them during the summers of 1995 and 1996, and in 2000 throughout the year, all well after high school.  These sessions—162 in all—asked members of the sample to reflect on their years growing up and to look ahead to their anticipated futures… The Young Adult Survey (YAS ) commenced in 1998 with 82 percent of the interviews completed that year…. Parents and teachers of the children also are represented.  Parents were interviewed up to eleven times from first grade to eleventh grade and teachers interviewed up to nine times, the last in ninth grade.”  School records were also collected for the study. (The Long Shadow, pp. 15-16)

It is impossible in a short blog post to do justice to this complex and fascinating study.  I urge you to find a copy of The Long Shadow.  These words from the book’s conclusion, however, shed light on the reasons Edsall struggles to find a satisfying solution to the persistence of the shadow of poverty.  As the children in their study grow up, Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson trace the many formative influences that make escaping poverty  so challenging:

“What ultimately determines well-being in adulthood is how young people negotiate the transition to adulthood, which is rooted in resources all the way back to first grade (and from other literatures, before first grade.)  We see that children are launched onto stable trajectories very early in life….  First, the SES of their schools aligns with that of their neighborhoods, and both trace back to the SES of their parents.  This configuration has the children of the urban advantaged trebly advantaged and their lower SES counterparts trebly disadvantaged across the social contexts that bear on their development, and this before they even make it to school.  Second, parents’ plans for their children are in place long before high school, and these plans are strong determinants of their children’s school performance and goals in life….  Parents’ ideas about their children’s future reflect their own social structural locations.  In addition, the foundational school curriculum in the early years is cumulative.  Not surprisingly then, when children of the Baltimore Youth Panel grow up with parents who have less than a high school education, their school careers tend to be foreshortened.  A few do move up by way of college, but just a few.  For the rest, their SES as adults reflects theirs as children” (The Long Shadow, pp. 187-188)