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In the United States of America, there is great emphasis placed on equal rights for all. Further, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares Education to be a human right (Dhillon, 2011). Yet, in this great country, the poor still do not receive an equal education, an education that could raise kids out of poverty (Dhillon, 2011). Instead, impoverished children are often brought down by a classist system.
The role of poverty in the U.S. Poverty is the strongest indicator of a child going to prison (Anders, 2011). Three times the amount of money goes in the prison system than in the schools (Anders, 2011). State governments benefit when people provide for their families with illegal labor rather than turning to welfare, plus the benefit of free labor from prisons (Anders, 2011). Social mobility through education is for the most part a myth; it only holds true in only some communities (Anders, 2011). One would think that the more compassionate and preventative method of providing a quality education would be the more preferable route.
Compared to other industrialized countries, the United States of America is quite negligent of its poor. From 1999-2009, the child poverty rate has increased 19.6% (Armstrong, 2009). Every day, 2,500 children are born into poverty in the United States, giving the country one of the highest rates of poverty among industrialized countries (Anders, 2011). The U.S. also allocates fewer resources to social welfare programs, such as public employment services and modest support guaranteed for all children (child allowance, child care, and paid parental leave) than other Western countries, despite the high value placed on being able to work one's way out of poverty (Anders, 2011). Policy makers mistake work with self sufficiency, and feel that work is all that is needed to be able to live off of welfare programs (Anders, 2011). It is impossible to become independent of welfare at minimum wage, which is well below living wage; two full time, minimum wage workers cannot afford the average cost of a one bedroom apartment, and when food, transportation, and health care is added to the needs of the impoverished the debt becomes too much (Anders, 2011). Oftentimes, basic needs such as health care and a good diet are sacrificed by the poor because they cannot get assistance.
Poverty and neurobiology. Food is essential to life. A full stomach and a clear mind are essential for learning (Armstrong, 2009). With the increase in child poverty, there has also been an alarming increase in food challenged children (Armstrong, 2009). Malnutrition can lead to vitamin deficiencies, particularly in B vitamins and iron, and in the long term can lead to neurological effects (Armstrong, 2009). Other maladies with possible neurological effects that are more common to low-income children include lead poisoning and asthma (Armstrong, 2009). In general, the brains of impoverished children develop differently (Armstrong, 2009). Many functions of the brain, such as language development and executive functioning (e.g. the ability to plan, remember details, and pay attention) develop much more slowly in low income children compared to their wealthier peers (Armstrong, 2009). By the age of nine or ten, the differences in the brain scans of poor kids, compared to wealthier kids, are almost equivalent to the damage of a stroke (Armstrong, 2009). Poverty effects the child's achievement when he or she is assessed in their first year of school and continues to affect children once they leave poverty; the effects of poverty may be lasting (Kiernan & Mensah, 2011). Because the background of poverty affects the neurobiology of children, it raises the question of whether anything can be done to help these children.
The role of the school. The schools do occasionally try to do something to help impoverished children. Schools sometimes have early, intensive, sustained, intervention programs that also provide good nutrition and health care (Armstrong, 2009). However, with the growth in the child poverty rate, the education system struggles to provide the programs low-income children need to succeed (Armstrong, 2009). These programs are often cut when the economy is down (Armstrong, 2009). Poor schools, such as those in rural areas, have low per-pupil expenditures (Fusarelli & Militello, 2012). So, many schools do not have it in their budget to pay for such extensive programs for such a large proportion of their students in the first place.
Poor schools also cannot afford good teachers. The students with the most need often have the least experienced teachers (Armstrong, 2009). Schools with high rates of minority students, impoverished students, and English language learners are more likely to hire beginning teachers (Armstrong, 2009). These teachers then move to more affluent schools as they gain experience because the schools don't have the money to retain them (Armstrong, 2009; Fusarelli & Militello, 2012). These students are 77% more likely to get out of field teachers (Armstrong, 2009). These schools need to offer incentives such as targeted salary increases, bonuses, housing incentives, tuition assistance, and tax credits (Armstrong, 2009). They also hire non-traditional teaching candidates, such as retired military professionals and high-achieving college students (Armstrong, 2009). Poor schools also have less difficult curricula, higher student to teacher ratios, and receive less funding (Armstrong, 2009). Thus, not only are schools lacking in the extra programs that impoverished kids need to catch up with wealthier peers, but they are also hiring less qualified people to teach low-income children, giving children with a low socioeconomic status an unequal education.
The role of the parent. If schools cannot make up for the difference in achievement between the poor and the rich, then perhaps the parents can. This assumption is one many policy makers and teachers have (Bower &Griffin, 2011). Lack of parental involvement is associated with low student achievement and engagement (Bower & Griffin, 2011). Parental involvement seems to be at the root of the achievement gap (Bower& Griffin, 2011). Parental involvement is especially low for students of color and low-income households (Bower & Griffin, 2011). Schools define parental involvement as volunteering in the school, communicating with teachers, assisting with homework, and attending school events and conferences (Bower & Griffin, 2011). Correlational studies show that parental involvement leads to increased social competence and social networks, which leads to resources such as tutoring, enrichment opportunities, and curriculum extensions (Bower & Griffin, 2011). By the traditional, white, middle-class definition of parental involvement, schools benefit by gaining resources.
However, parenting in poverty is exceptionally difficult (Kiernan & Mensah, 2011). Work schedules, difficulties with transportation, and difficulties with childcare prevent parents from coming to school events and conferences (Bower & Griffin, 2011). Informal conversations and unscheduled meetings often work better for parents of low SES, but this is often see as obtrusive (Bower & Griffin, 2011). Schools are warned against defining specific behaviors as parental involvement because it can disenfranchise families and make them feel like their efforts are going unrecognized (Bower & Griffin, 2011). Low income families are ostracized by white middle class families who see their lack of "traditional" involvement as a lack of caring about their kids (Bower & Griffin, 2011). Not all parents have the time and money the school's definition of parental involvement requires (Bower & Griffin, 2011). Parents of poor and minority students, on the other hand, see the school's role as providing academic education and their role as providing moral education; they define parental involvement as providing nurturance, instilling moral and cultural values, and talking with their children (Bower & Griffin, 2011). Just because parents are not involved by the white, middle-class definition, does not mean they are not involved in their children's lives.
It is not necessarily the schools' definition of parental involvement that determines the success of a child. A study by Kiernan and Mensah (2011) tested the effects of parenting, resources, and poverty on the achievement levels of children in elementary school in a longitudinal study. A parenting index was created using aspects that can help a child thrive despite the disadvantages of poverty: cognitive stimulation, promotion of play and learning, security and warmth in relationships, sensitivity towards the child, physical nurturance, boundaries and standards of behavior, and positive discipline (Kiernan & Mensah, 2011). The top third scored 70% in good levels of achievement, the middle scored 51%, and the bottom scored 31% (Kiernan & Mensah, 2011). Children were ranked from least number of risk factors to impede achievement to most and then put into quintiles; the first had 69% good achievement, the second had 64% good achievement, the third had 53% good achievement, the fourth had 42% good achievement, and the fifth, with the highest number of indicators, had 24% good achievement (Kiernan & Mensah, 2011). Risk factors include income, mother's education, employment, housing, quality of the neighborhood, mother's age at birth, family structure, the number of children in the household, birth order, ethnic origin, and language spoken in the home (Kiernan& Mensah, 2011). When tested for poverty, 60% of children who had not lived in poverty reached good levels of achievement compared to 40% in episodic poverty and 26% in persistent poverty (Kiernan & Mensah, 2011). Kiernan and Mensah (2011) looked for interactions, and found that 44% of children who did not experience poverty had high parenting scores, compared to 11% of children in persistent poverty who had high parenting scores. Meanwhile, 66% of children in persistent poverty had low parenting scores (Kiernan & Mensah, 2011). Similarly, 60% of children with the highest levels of family resources had high parenting scores, while only 9% or children with low family resources had high parenting scores. Further, 69% of children with the lowest family resources had low parenting scores (Kiernan & Mensah, 2011). Achievement scores for those in the lowest level of poverty with the lowest level of parenting were 19%, while it was 58% for the highest level of parenting (Kiernan & Mensah, 2011). For those who had not experienced poverty and had high levels of parenting, their achievement levels were 73% (Kiernan & Mensah, 2011). Poverty has about a 50% effect on achievement and parenting has a 40% effect on parenting within the study (Kiernan & Mensah, 2011). Kiernan and Mensah show that although that poverty negatively affects a child, positive parenting practices can help counteract the effects of poverty.
The role of the educator. Oftentimes, parents become an excuse not to teach impoverished children. Educators and policy makers absolve themselves of improving the problem with a blame-the-victim mentality by believing all parents of low income kids are lazy, addicted to substances, and don't care about their kids, and especially not their education (Armstrong, 2009). Teachers believe that parents will not become involved in the classroom, even though they refuse to try new methods (Bower & Griffin, 2011). Often, the curriculum is not targeted to the children, even though children are most responsive to relevant materials and high stakes testing only exacerbates the problem (Anders, 2011). Instead of finding alternative methods to teach, schools see the child as deficit (Anders, 2011). There are definitely practices out there if teachers would only look.
Teachers often do not relate to their students. Teachers primarily consist of white middle class women (Anders, 2011; Armstrong, 2009). Differences between middle and lower class include "hidden" social rules and communication, interactions, and expectations (Armstrong, 2009). There is a difference in symptoms of generational and situational poverty (Armstrong, 2009). Behaviors and the mindset related to poverty often affect learning (Armstrong, 2009). Identifying the students' resources and strengths is proven to increase effectiveness of teaching (Armstrong, 2009). The best practice for educators working with impoverished students is that they should educate themselves on the effects of class and poverty and design curriculum relevant to poor students, drawing on the experiences and intelligences of the students (Armstrong, 2009). Teacher education programs tend to leave out critical conversations about how educators and education research relies primarily on white middle class education (Anders, 2011). So, teachers tend to feel uncomfortable with their minority students (Anders, 2011). Finally, educators should be aware of their own biases and how they affect their interactions and expectations of students (Armstrong, 2009). This is good educational practice, but sadly it is not necessarily common educational practice.
The standards of education are set to the white middle-class. Public schools want children to live by the behavioral standards set by the white middle class, including self regulation, memorization, social flexibility, compliance, and respect to authority (Anders, 2011). However, as stated above, children in poverty behave differently. Teachers know each pupil less on an individual basis and rely more on stereotypes (Anders, 2011). Knowing an individual child makes a behavior seem less disruptive and disrespectful and reveals the behavior as understandable and manageable (Anders, 2011) Based on differences, such as behavior, between the poor and the rich, students are academically sorted by socioeconomic status rather than ability based on stereotypes (Armstrong, 2009). However, merely educating oneself on the differences between students could help prevent this.
Differences in behavioral standards between social classes lead to low income students being disciplined more in school. Zero tolerance policies, though they do not increase school wide academic achievement scores and in some cases lower them, contributes to school push out and school leaving (Anders, 2011). Students who jeopardize the school's achievement scores on top of having a disciplinary record are more likely to get pushed into the resource room or out of school altogether (Anders, 2011). No Child Left Behind leaves teachers with less time to focus on students because they have to focus more on curriculum and tests (Anders, 2011). In low-track classrooms, teachers rely on authoritarian compliance and give fewer opportunities for active learning (Anders, 2011). These teachers are compared to correctional officers when remembered by prisoners (Anders, 2011). Routines, compliance demands, condemnation, and targeting trained students for academic failure and dropping out (Anders, 2011). It raises the question as to whether or not the educational system, and society at large, wants kids to fail in life.
The role of high-stakes tests. The educational system continuously places poor students on a lower track, and potentially forces them out of school, in order to protect their standing on high-stakes tests. Standardized tests test knowledge and skill sets that are more likely to be present in children of upper classes, yet these tests have become more important (Armstrong, 2009). A more prominent example is that the SAT has a persistent, but unintended, statistical bias in the verbal section that negatively affects African American students (Armstrong, 2009). The test has been recreated many times and it cannot relieve itself of bias, and the racial and class biases are very strong (Armstrong, 2009). Some postsecondary institutions base a large portion of their entry on the SAT without any other standardized test (Armstrong, 2009). This could impede impoverished students from getting into those institutions (Armstrong, 2009). Campbell's Law, created in 1975, says that if a quantitative social indicator is used in decision making, the more subject it is to pressure and the more likely it will be to distort and corrupt what it was intended to monitor (Dutro & Selland, 2012). Since No Child Left Behind, Campbell's Law has lead to narrowing curriculum, reorganizing classroom time for tested subjects, reallocating funds for tested subjects (math and English) and students near the cut score, and to persuade teachers to teach in ineffective ways (Dutro & Selland, 2012). High stakes testing only shows part of what a child knows. Too much focus on high stakes testing leads to cheating the system, a loss in quality of education, and increased dropout rates (Dutro & Selland, 2012). Teachers must focus more on math and English and less on other subjects (Dutro & Selland, 2012). They must drill students, especially poor students, on content and form (Dutro & Selland, 2012). The form of the test though can often undermine important aspects of content students should know; for example, the writing assessment over simplifies genre and the purpose and process of writing (Dutro & Selland, 2012). High stakes tests certainly have their downfalls.
Standardized testing is not all bad. Since No Child Left Behind, Schools must be held accountable for the education of their students; they must show this through adequate yearly progress (Booher-Jeening & U.S. Department of Education, 2011). All students must be tested (Booher-Jennings & U.S Department of Education, 2011). Unfortunately, in many schools there is no extensive help unless a child is in special education in many schools, which may explain why many poor students are pushed down to special education (Booher-Jennings & U.S Department of Education, 2011). Further, Response to Intervention, a program that gives struggling children the extra help they need, rather than waiting for them to fail, is starting to be implemented across the nation (Fuchs, Litty, & Hatch, 2011). Perhaps, things will change with the implementation of Response to Intervention.
An important aspect is how high-stakes tests make children feel about themselves. High stakes tests place children in binary power relations of proficient or non-proficient (Dutro & Selland, 2012). Non-proficient children can be locked into a pattern of powerlessness; once a person ascribes to a role or a competence, it is hard to see it another way (Dutro & Selland, 2012). A third of the 4th graders knew where they were on the assessment, but didn't know why (Dutro & Selland, 2012). They were certain about their reading competence, either for positive or negative (Dutro & Selland, 2012). Dutro and Selland (2012) describe one child who despite having recently had a major success in reading, felt like she was a poor reader due to achievement tests. Students should not have to feel belittled by standardized tests, especially when they do work hard to make progress.
Children should not be put in the middle of a power struggle between the lower and upper classes. Three times the amount of money goes into the prisons than in schools, even though a proper education could easily reduce the amount of criminals because people wouldn't have to turn to crime to make money (Anders, 2011). Unlike in other industrialized countries, the United States does not give low income children the social welfare programs needed to the extent to equalize the opportunities to achieve. Families are left to struggle on their own to come up with resources such as housing, food, and health care. Many children of low income families academically develop at much slower rates due to lack of proper nutrition. Families also have a difficult time with housing and this provides discontinuity with curriculum and routines. Despite these difficulties, schools expect parents to make up for extensive schooling that they do not offer; poor schools have less money, less educational resources, and less qualified teachers than other schools. Parents do not have the time or money, and often times the education, to be extra involved and believe that it is the schools job to educate their children. Parents believe their job is to be the moral support for their child and the school's job is to be the academic support. A study by Kiernan and Mensah (2011) supports the parents' belief that positive parenting can help a child to succeed, despite poverty. Unfortunately, the schools' solution to offering extensive help to impoverished students is too often to push them to a lower track in school or forcing them out of school all together. Educators are primarily white, middle class women who do not relate to their students. If they did research on poverty, they could help prevent this all together. That way, students would not be discouraged and would not feel like failures for the rest of their lives. An increase in putting students in special education and forcing them to leave school has increased due to high-stakes tests. While high stakes tests hold schools, teachers, and students more accountable, they also have lead to schools cheating the program and this is one really unfortunate result. Standardized tests tend to favor the white middle-class, meaning that poor students are at a disadvantage. Children who do poorly on the tests feel bad about themselves, even if they are making strides in the classroom. Even when they are not told how they did, they have a feeling how well they did on the test and are fairly accurate. It is important to keep in mind that poor children can succeed despite their disadvantages and more importantly despite all stereotypes.
The poor in America are receiving unequal education thanks to stereotypes, funding, and high-stakes tests. While it is true that low income children may be disadvantaged from environmental stressors and are more likely to be delayed as a result of their environment and poor nutrition, with extensive programs and better nutrition more achievement can be gained. Equal education for the poor, and prevention of crime through better education, is attainable.