That’s the question Matt Yglesias asks in this Atlantic article.
My interest in education policy focuses on civl rights, segregation, urban education, and general school reform, so this struck me:
Poor kids, in other words, aren’t just stuck in low-performing school districts as some kind of coincidence. They live in them because that’s where it’s cheap to live.
After litigating equity funding…
- Urban schools are still vastly underfunded when compared to their suburban counterparts – even though many urban districts do receive more in educational funding at the state and national level (suburban schools tend to receive more funding from their town tax base, so state fund equalize the funding between districts and federal money (Title I mostly) helps aid the poor students that are more likely to attend urban schools in greater numbers than suburban schools.
- Urban schools simply have more needs than their suburban counterparts because their children are coming to school less advantaged than their suburban peers. Think about it – Billy from Andover started Kindergarten after having gone to a high-quality day care since he was a baby and attending pre-school since age 3. His parents have enrolled him in child swim lessons, mommy and me play sessions, and t-ball. They read books to him every night and engage him in all of those little child learning fads. Johnny from Roxbury is starting Kindergarten after having been home with his older siblings for the past five years. His parents have tried to provide all that they could for him, but they’re struggling to to keep jobs, pay the rent, and put food on the table. Billy is going to come to school with more knowledge off the bat than Johnny simply because of differences in socioeconomic status.
- So yes, urban schools need more because the socioeconomic makeup of these schools is drastically different than most of their suburban counterparts. Urban schools provide more social services, food, healthcare, psychological counseling, mentoring, and tutoring than their suburban counterparts because the families that attend these schools cannot provide these services themselves. And these services cost more.
- Do these urban kids deserve these services – absolutely, because every child in the nation deserves a high-quality education. But, in the end, the urban schools after having spent their money just to provide their students with food, clothes, school supplies, counseling, and tutoring, are left cutting gym class, remaining in crumbling buildings, and cutting out art and music programs (never mind science labs and field trips). The urban schools are still left lacking.
Yet, as it is often said, money will not solve all of our educational problems. Charter schools traditionally operate on smaller budgets than their public school counterparts in the same districts (because most charter schools have to pay for their facilities, whereas PS 102′s school does not have to pay taxes or rent for their building). And some charters are posting impressive results. Charter schools have shown that much can be done with only a little – but that “much” comes from the excessive dedication of the staff, teachers, parents, community, and students. At the way charters are moving, their model is not quite replicable at a large-scale.
Back to the point, urban schools suffer most of their defects because they are fighting an uphill battle against poverty, drugs, crime, and a system that punishes the underclass. This exemplifies “the civil rights issue of our generation” and something needs to be done.
However, Yglesias leaves a qualifier and some food for thought at the end: “If urban neighborhood schools improve, will poor families actually be able to attend them, or will educational progress be a further driver of gentrification and displacement? “
The non-profit that I interned with last Spring, St. Matthew’s Children’s Fund Ethiopia is working on a new fundraising campaign, TwentyFive Ethiopia to mark 25 years since the famine. There’s a video that’s going to be launched this summer in coordination with the campaign. Check it out here.
How can the stress of poverty affect a child? How is this related to policy? What can be done?
The Economist sums it up (article in full):
I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told
Apr 2nd 2009
From The Economist print edition
How poverty passes from generation to generation is now becoming clearer. The answer lies in the effect of stress on two particular parts of the brainPanos
THAT the children of the poor underachieve in later life, and thus remain poor themselves, is one of the enduring problems of society. Sociologists have studied and described it. Socialists have tried to abolish it by dictatorship and central planning. Liberals have preferred democracy and opportunity. But nobody has truly understood what causes it. Until, perhaps, now.
The crucial breakthrough was made three years ago, when Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania showed that the working memories of children who have been raised in poverty have smaller capacities than those of middle-class children. Working memory is the ability to hold bits of information in the brain for current use—the digits of a phone number, for example. It is crucial for comprehending languages, for reading and for solving problems. Entry into the working memory is also a prerequisite for something to be learnt permanently as part of declarative memory—the stuff a person knows explicitly, like the dates of famous battles, rather than what he knows implicitly, like how to ride a bicycle.
Dr Evans’s and Dr Schamberg’s volunteers were 195 participants in a long-term sociological and medical study that Dr Evans is carrying out in New York state. At the time, the participants were 17 years old. All are white, and the numbers of men and women are about equal.
Stress in the city
To measure the amount of stress an individual had suffered over the course of his life, the two researchers used an index known as allostatic load. This is a combination of the values of six variables: diastolic and systolic blood pressure; the concentrations of three stress-related hormones; and the body-mass index, a measure of obesity. For all six, a higher value indicates a more stressful life; and for all six, the values were higher, on average, in poor children than in those who were middle class. Moreover, because Dr Evans’s wider study had followed the participants from birth, the two researchers were able to estimate what proportion of each child’s life had been spent in poverty. That more precise figure, too, was correlated with the allostatic load.
The capacity of a 17-year-old’s working memory was also correlated with allostatic load. Those who had spent their whole lives in poverty could hold an average of 8.5 items in their memory at any time. Those brought up in a middle-class family could manage 9.4, and those whose economic and social experiences had been mixed were in the middle.
These two correlations do not by themselves prove that chronic stress damages the memory, but Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg then applied a statistical technique called hierarchical regression to the results. They were able to use this to remove the effect of allostatic load on the relationship between poverty and memory discovered originally by Dr Farah. When they did so, that relationship disappeared. In other words, the diminution of memory in the poorer members of their study was entirely explained by stress, rather than by any more general aspect of poverty.
To confirm this result, the researchers also looked at characteristics such as each participant’s birthweight, his mother’s age when she gave birth, the mother’s level of education and her marital status, all of which differ, on average, between the poor and the middle classes. None of these characteristics had any effect. Nor did a mother’s own stress levels.
That stress, and stress alone, is responsible for damaging the working memories of poor children thus looks like a strong hypothesis. It is also backed up by work done on both people and laboratory animals, which shows that stress changes the activity of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that carry signals from one nerve cell to another in the brain. Stress also suppresses the generation of new nerve cells in the brain, and causes the “remodelling” of existing ones. Most significantly of all, it shrinks the volume of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. These are the parts of the brain most closely associated with working memory.
Children with stressed lives, then, find it harder to learn. Put pejoratively, they are stupider. It is not surprising that they do less well at school, end up poor as adults and often visit the same circumstances on their own children.
Dr Evans’s and Dr Schamberg’s study does not examine the nature of the stress that the children of the poor are exposed to, but it is now well established that poor adults live stressful lives, and not just for the obvious reason that poverty brings uncertainty about the future. The main reason poor people are stressed is that they are at the bottom of the social heap as well as the financial one.
Sir Michael Marmot, of University College London, and his intellectual successors have shown repeatedly that people at the bottom of social hierarchies experience much more stress in their daily lives than those at the top—and suffer the consequences in their health. Even quite young children are socially sensitive beings and aware of such things.
So, it may not be necessary to look any further than their place in the pecking order to explain what Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg have discovered in their research into the children of the poor. The Bible says, “the poor you will always have with you.” Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg may have provided an important part of the explanation why.
I’ve just been placed into my London internship for next semester, pending an interview.
What did I get? Some place in Parliament? Work with the British Youth Council? Education Policy Committee within the House of Commons? City of London Poverty Assessment Planning? – Yeah, all those would be negatives.
I’m working with the St. Matthew’s Children’s Fund Ethiopia, a non-profit created during the 1980s famine, that works on fundraising and community development projects for the Ethiopian community and orphans in general within five areas of Ethiopia.
How amazing is that?!?!
The website also notes that there are only two staff members (paid, I assume) in the London office, so there will be lots of opportunities for individual work and influence. Yay!
The only thing that could make this internship better, from my perspective, is if they sent me to Ethiopia during my time there- maybe during Easter break (Spring Break falls during the time before I start my internship).
And according to the roommate, another thing that could make it better is if the director was a hot, African, British guy. Hmm… that would be nice!
Patrick, filling in for Andrew on poverty, racial inequality (Jim Crow), and economic inequality.
Of course they are all related!