Tough Schools or Tough Families?

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How do we fix our schools, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods?  

In trying to address the many problems plaguing America’s educational system, educators and families are searching for ways to make things better. Perhaps the most prominent shortcoming of American education is its inability to produce high school graduates at an impressive rate.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the graduation rate from public high schools for the 2014-2015 school year was only 83%. Other countries with significantly less wealth than the United States boast considerably higher graduation rates. So why is the United States falling behind in education, despite its wealth and resources?

Some blame the decline of traditional “family values,” while others turn to the schools themselves, blaming standardized testing and an emphasis on extracurriculars over academics. However, in all of the searching we do for the root of our educational woes, all too often we forget about the massive wealth disparities that are driving educational problems for many Americans.

Countless studies have shown that giving schools more funding helps them succeed. And is that really surprising? A decrepit school with teachers receiving low salaries is not going to be a learning environment in which students thrive. If you give that school the money it needs to pay its teachers well, buy some fresh Algebra textbooks and maybe even spruce up the gymnasium a little bit, you’re going to create an environment with higher morale. The children attending that school are going to feel better about the process of learning. This shouldn’t surprise us.

The problem lies in where we get this money to improve our schools, which is property taxes. Higher property taxes point to nicer homes, which point to wealthier families living in safer communities. While there are certainly exceptions to the rule, this is – and has been – the standard in American education for quite some time. The parents of wealthier families typically have higher levels of education and are likely to know firsthand how beneficial it can be, financially and otherwise, to do well in school. These parents are likely to share that sentiment with their children and to cultivate learning within their homes.

At the end of the day, the kids who live in the nicer homes and who have a little more money are not the kids who go to the schools that are in dire need of better funding. On the other end of America’s enormous wealth spectrum, we have students who live in homes with lower property taxes. (Of course, some schools in low income neighborhoods are the beneficiaries of extensive state or federal grants). 

The neighborhoods these homes were built in are also probably less-than-perfect for creating a positive and safe learning environment for students. Finally, you have the schools themselves who don’t have enough money to adequately run their academic programs; and you can forget about athletics, theater, enriching field trips or a senior prom. American students are systematically funneled into schools that reflect their current state of wealth. It can be incredibly difficult for students to pull the necessary strings to get into better schools outside their district, and there simply aren’t enough magnet schools for all the poor children out there.

If we look at the problems that exist within American education and try to solve them equally across the board, the results will not be received equally among all students. For example, let’s use the case of a hypothetical American education critic. This critic constructs the argument that we need to stop using standardized tests to shuttle students onto different academic tracks because some kids have different learning styles and it’s not fair to put one student beneath another just because he or she doesn’t test well.

Let’s say the critic proposes halving the number of standardized tests administered in a given school year and replacing those tests with others that measure different skills. If this policy makes its way into American schools, there is certainly a chance that many students would benefit from being able to demonstrate their intelligence in new ways that fit their particular needs better.

However, if many schools are receiving too little money to effectively implement the new testing methods, the students and those poorer schools would essentially be left in the dust. This is an example of a way that perfectly good attempts to reform American education fall short because they don’t address the wealth disparity that punishes poor kids for conditions beyond their control.

When measuring a student’s odds at success, there are a multitude of factors. Obviously, poor children have the capacity to succeed, and wealthy children are not guaranteed success by any means. Not making much money or not living in the world’s best school district is by no means an educational death sentence. In the same vein, motivation and a strong work ethic can be taught by one’s family no matter the financial obstacles in the way.

However, making the argument that students can work hard to succeed despite poverty is unhelpful when there are actions we can take so that this is less of a problem. Yes, we can tell disadvantaged students to work hard and do their best, but this does nothing to address the root problem and to acknowledge that statistically, the kids with fewer financial resources are going to continue to drop out at higher rates and are going to be less enthused with an American education system, which has failed them.

Obviously, this problem cannot be solved easily. You can’t snap your fingers and make economic resources magically reallocated. However, the federal, state and local governments in the United States need to focus their attention on the educational wealth disparities that are affecting students nationwide. If we can slowly change the way that schools receive their funding and work to give all American children an equal shot at receiving a quality education, then we will be in a position where we can focus on the other problems our schools are facing. In the meantime, working on making a quality education a possibility for every American student is a great place to begin.

Cassie Kuhn is a student at the University of Alabama. She has written for the university's paper, The Crimson White.

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