Why don’t our schools work, especially for poor kids? I believe there are two kinds of answers to this problem and one kind is a lot easier to address than the other.
First, the hard one: kids in poverty don’t stay in school because they know that it’s not really going to help them in life. What would happen if every poor kid in the country actually did graduate from high school? How many more office workers and Starbucks baristas do we actually need? The fact is, we already have too many as it is in comparison with the number of jobs that are out there in those areas, to say nothing of the fact that no one really wants to be working at Starbucks anyways. There is a structural problem with our economy such that there is a fundamental gap between the kinds of things that education helps us to do and the jobs that are actually available.
Again, suppose every poor kid in the country did graduate high school. Suppose further that these kids wanted to go to college. Do you think there’s actually room for them even in public universities, or even community colleges? Since the 60s the public investment in higher education has steadily declined. We’ve been building prisons to house poor kids rather than universities to educate them. The latest recession has seen states cut funding to higher education, including community colleges, even further. Already, at the community college and state college level, there are far more potential students who are ready and qualified to learn than there are slots for them. Sure, perhaps you can get admitted. But can you actually get a seat in the classes that you need, much less the ones you want?
So why doesn’t our educational system work for poor folk? Well, stepping back a bit, because it’s not designed to work for them. In fact, it’s designed to ensure that poor kids fail, because our economy as presently constituted depends upon that result. If you’re poor in America, you are meant to end up either 1) in jail 2) in the military or 3) working menial jobs (e.g, janitor, dishwasher, fast food cook, security, etc.) that people with education think themselves above. These are the things that our society wants the poor to be doing with their lives because these are the ways that the rich can make the most money off of them. To really change these outcomes in a significant way would require more fundamental changes to the nature of the economy. We need to have things that poor educated folk could do that would significantly improve upon the options they have at present.
Okay, so that’s the root of the problem from a macro view. Now, we need to talk about the way that this intentional failure gets manifested within the educational system. And, this part of the problem is marginally easier to address (although there is a limit to how significantly the educational outcomes for poor folk can change without addressing the structural issues in the economy discussed above). How are our schools, especially those for poor folk, designed to fail? Because they make everything about test scores. We spend far more time measuring our students learning than we actually do teaching them anymore. Seriously, have you actually been in a classroom lately? Teachers are so pressured to get their students to perform well on the endless cycle of tests that all that they’re able to teach–in many cases, all that they’re allowed to teach–are the very limited sets of facts that can be measured easily by multiple choice standardized tests. E.g., grammar, math, history and science facts (as opposed to actual history and science), etc. Measuring students’ ability to regurgitate facts is no actual way to assess the ability to apply the central concepts in these areas. More importantly though, the obsession with measuring student performance–the endless parade of tests, made mandatory thanks to no child left behind–insures that students are never actually taught how to apply the concepts behind the facts that they are taught. Students are taught grammar and they cannot write a sentence. They’re taught principles of geometry but not how to build a house. They’re taught about photosynthesis but not how to grow a vegetable garden. What they’re certainly never taught is how to think for themselves (and yes, this is something that can be taught–rich kids have been learning it for a long time). The way that you make kids excited about learning is by showing them how they can use what they’re being taught in their own lives. It’s simple, really.
One other issue needs to be addressed and that is the overwhelming dominance of math and science in the curriculum today. I suspect one reason that kids aren’t learning math and science better than they are is because they’re being taught almost nothing but those things (and they’re not really even being taught math and science in the proven method, i.e., by applying the concepts from these in practical activities that they can experience directly). Human beings are funny creatures–to be engaged in life we need to do more than just one kind of thing all day. Moreover, many of us are, for whatever reason but due to no fault of our own, interested in things other than math and science. Our educational system has made it so that if you don’t like math and science, then you have no reason to like school. There is no reason this should be the case, especially for poor folk. Recall that our society really neither needs nor wants a plethora of poor folk who are math whizzes–there are scarcely few opportunities to apply calculus and trigonometry while working at McD’s or living behind a cell. However, anyone anywhere can obtain pleasure from reading a book. Anyone anywhere can draw what they see around them. Anyone anywhere can make music. Or, anyone can do these things if they’re ever given the opportunity to learn them in the first place. And these are the areas that are being cut from the curriculum to make way for more math and science, especially in poor areas.