In my first post in this series on poverty and education, I introduced this work by economist Charles Karelis, Economist’s View: Is Poverty Caused by Irrational Behavior? which got to an underlying truth, that when you are poor, you may not be capable of making “rational” choices, because you have too many problems to deal with. Now is the time to introduce another concept, the poor may not be like you and me, but they aren’t always like each other either. There are poor folks that are able to make rational decisions. Some probably do a better job of raising their kids than you or I. There was a lot of talk of resiliency a few years back. Some people bounce back from adversity, some poor families are not suffering as much as their neighbors, some have more resources in themselves and in their families. Not everyone who is poor is living a retched life, and wallowing in misery. Those folks can make rational choices. Their idea of rational though may be different than conservatives though. In general, I think most families in the “failing” schools I’ve taught at would rather have functioning local schools than to send their kids on a bus to another school to get a better education.
Eduwonkette has touched on this frequently when she discusses differences between charter and non-charter families that can be summarized here:
First, that students selected into a charter lottery makes them different from those who did not. It may be that their parents are more involved in their education, that they are having a particularly bad experience at their neighborhood school, or that their parents can no longer pay for private school. Whatever the reason, families selecting in, even if they are all poor and minority kids, are different by virtue of choosing a non-neighborhood school.
There are folks that don’t always get that difference like this reporter at the Washington Post doing a piece on District charter schools. A whole study was done that is talked about here, eduwonkette: Cool People You Should Know: Stefanie DeLuca, which shows Karelis’ theory in practice. Parents were unable to make the “rational” choice of moving their children out of a neighborhood school because of the complexities of their lives.
The opposite side of the choice coin and a significant issue in low-SES schools is transiency, the frequent movement of students from school to school. My school has a 30% turnover rate. Each year, leaving out kinder, about 30% of our students leave, and are replaced. Some families circle around, and come back after a hiatus. There are many reasons for these moves. They have housing instability, income instability, and any other kind of instability you can name.
This transiency is not good for a child’s education. Part of the argument for scripted programs with pacing guides like the one we use is that it was supposed to make this transiency meaningless for a child’s education. At this point many of you are probably having a ironic chuckle that somehow keeping that one little piece of normalcy, being on the same page in your basel reader, will make up for a 7 year old who has been in 3-6 different schools already. Since I’m on the site student study team, I’ll share another problem that occurs. The district is VERY careful about starting special education testing, they want a minimal number (3) of SST meetings or three 8 week periods of intervention before doing testing. Some sites like mine are on RTI, so kids get services without qualifying, but others do not. We have a fourth grader who is new to our site who cannot decode at a second grade level, or add and subtract with carrying. She has not yet had special education testing, but she has moved around a bit, so that’s not surprising. What can be done? At my present site, the principal is very helpful about giving families permits to stay at our school, and some families travel pretty far to keep coming there, but that doesn’t work for everyone.
But there is another dark side to transiency, which is movement by choice. I’ll share a story from my son’s school which is a Title One school, but not whole school free-lunch (75%+ in poverty), but does have a growing population of poor students as the downturn goes on. The principal was discussing a situation with my my husband about a first grader that had a lot of behavior problems. They had a couple of parent conferences, but the mother and the school were not of the same mind. The parent still had a VERY high affective filter up. The child was missing a lot of school too. They went on a home visit, and the parent had moved. I’ve seen that pattern in various places I’ve worked and it fits with Charles Karelis’ theory that he illustrates with this analogy
A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The … poorer one is … the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems.
I would add, let’s say a corollary to this. It’s like having multiple medical problems and trying to figure out what to fix. You’re not a doctor, so you pay attention to what is bothering you the most (like taking care of a stubbed toe, but ignoring high blood pressure), and not being a doctor, you may do something that’ll take care of it in the short run (take some pain reliever instead of having the foot x-rayed) but won’t resolve it in the long-term.
To these families, the frequent complaints and requests for intervention with their child from schools is like a stubbed toe, and the best way for them to deal with it is to move. Schools don’t help because they are usually happy to see the backside of those families going out the door. And there is an incentive in California for “driving” a family away (which, btw, I don’t think this principal intended, but I have seen some that do this as an unofficial policy getting into some real snake and mongoose conflicts with parents). You see, to be fair the state only counts test scores for kids you could reasonable have affected, so if kids arrive after what’s called the CBEDs date, they are not computed in your AYP or API (state measure). This was intended to prevent issues with getting a kid right before testing (which happens) that you had NOTHING to do with educating, and having their scores on your test. Since CBEDs is the first Monday in October, this is a little over generous perhaps, but you can see the incentive for schools.
What is the answer to these “choices”? The obvious answer is more housing stability. That would definitely involve moving federal policy in the opposite direction than it’s been going for a long time. Some of what I will talk about in the next and last post will address this issue. In the meantime, we need to do the things to minimize transiency. Work with those parents to lower their affective filters (what I addressed in the last post), let families stay at your school after they move, and give families a stake in your school community (my next post).
What about choices for kids? I remember a point that Mathew Needleman made in a presentation about video in the classroom, that when computers were used by low-SES vs. high-SES children, the low-SES children were largely engaged in being told what to do by the computer (test prep quizzes), while the high-SES children told the computer what to do — e.g. LOGO, ALICE, Scratch (Towards Digital Equity, Neuman). This doesn’t just happen with computers. Based on recommendations from the feds, more time is spent on Direct Instruction in Title One schools. Students are being told what to do, but are not given a lot of choices. Students need to learn how to work and learn independently, otherwise you are just preparing them to be a line worker.
Is this always easy? No, but it is possible. I’ll point to two examples, one with a what, the other with a how. The what is the subject matter you give students. I have students look at rights and especially inalienable rights. This can be a bit difficult for students to grasp, so I have them look at their own rights. Last year I did assignments on the Rights of the Child, and had students come up with some rights of their own. The year before that, I did it to help make the unit on the American Revolution more comprehensible. The how comes from Mathew Needleman who has a series of posts were about independent work time, and how to make it effective, which took on the frequently given excuse for avoiding doing it, with “My Students Just Can’t Work Independently This Year”, and what you’ll need to do when you have kids who don’t know “how to work independently”, (hint–you’re the teacher, so you teach them how).
Further useful reading on parents and school choice:
eduwonkette: Cool People You Should Know: Brian Jacob
eduwonkette: Cool People You Should Know: Cecilia Rouse