Why poor kids fail in school and how Christians respond: a random sidetrack

African-American Boy readingAs you know, at The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club we work with low-income (“at-risk”) children to help them succeed in life. And since I read a lot about learning, I could not resist sharing a couple of items I found today:

First, from 30-year-old Harvard economics professor Roland G. Fryer and the Education Innovation Lab there: It turns out that poor kids are susceptible to “bribes” for academic success. Just like middle class kids. Imagine that. Read all about it in Time magazine. The amazing thing is it costs way less to incentivize kids to succeed than to focus on the preschools for the birth-to-5 window, to transform communities into “pipelines for success”, or whatever the latest trendy strategy may be.

So what’s the problem with incentives? People call them “bribes.” They think kids should learn for its own sake. But let’s get real. Your boss “bribes” you with a paycheck to come to work; maybe even “bribes” you with a bonus to do your best. How many kids did you grow up with who got cash awards from parents or grandparents for every “A”? Were those adults worried that it took “bribes” to get the best out of their kids? Or were they just concerned to get the best out of their kids?

Second, from former academic Ann Larson’s Democracy in Education blog, which is some of the best-written, most pointed invective about current test-driven education politics:

Here is what Roger Tilles wrote about these [test-based student] evaluation schemes in the Washington Post. “If these . . . . techniques were applied to other professions as they are being applied to teachers, it would mean that dentists be would evaluated not on their skills but only on how many cavities a dentist’s patients gets in a year or with a doctor on how many times his patients get sick in a year. Similarly, police are not evaluated on the number of crimes committed on their beat, nor fire personnel on number of fires in their jurisdiction.” To be fair, I do blame my dentist when I get a cavity. It just seems like it’s his fault for some reason!

The truth is that study after study after reputable study has shown that test scores are reliable indicators of family income. And that is all. [italics mine] Since 42% of kids in the US live in low-income families, we can surmise that lots of kids aren’t unintelligent. They are just poor! Hooray!

What? That came out wrong.

What I mean to say is that it is a very useful thing indeed that test scores are not the only items that can be counted. For example, adding up numbers is
one way we know that poverty doesn’t make kids stupid; it makes them hungry,
tired, and sad. Here are some of the specific ways living in poor
families affects children, according to researchers at Arizona State

1) Low-birth weight (“I have been sick frequently since I
was born.”)

2) Inadequate medical, dental and vision care (“I can’t see
the chalkboard, but it is my teacher’s fault that I don’t perform well in

3) Lack of health insurance (“I am sick, but my mommy can’t
find a doctor who takes Medicaid, and Medicaid doesn’t cover the treatment I
need anyway. Also, universal health care is Socialism.”)

4) Food insecurity (“I am hungry a lot.”)

5) Family relations and family stress (“The adults I live
with hit me sometimes, which is a real bummer when I am supposed to be focusing
on multiplication tables.”)

6) Neighborhood characteristics (“Most people in my neighborhood are unemployed because there are four job seekers for every job opening right now. And my apartment is crowded so I can’t find a quiet space to do my homework.”)

Through the magic of counting, see, we know that poor kids do not do so well
in school because having zero dollars is awful in a variety of ways.

In the suburb where I live, if you went by what you see, you would think that the Christian response to these problems is to get Christian kids out of the public schools and shelter them in homeschools or Christian schools, away from any awareness of domestic poverty and its destructive consequences … I mean, to allow them to flourish in a faith-filled learning environment that will prepare them to learn leadership in a quality Christian college and (perhaps) serve as godly leaders in government, in their homes, or on the foreign mission field.

In the city where I work, highly regarded Christian leaders have:

  • created top-flight alternative schools specifically to serve those at-risk children: Durham Nativity School, founded by Dr. Joseph Moylan, a former Duke medical faculty member who played a major role in the development of modern day trauma centers; Union Independent School, founded by Pastor Kenneth Hammond of Union Baptist Church;
  • lead after school programs at churches (like Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Emily K Center and The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club where I provide support), and sometimes in their own homes, for those young people.
  • do quiet deeds of good service to at-risk youth, like city employee Gwyn Silver, the “Book Lady” of the Hoover Road housing community, who shows up once a month with new books for the children.

Which, in my mind only begs the question:

How old do our children have to be before we allow the child — and ourselves — to face and to serve “the least of these” who are Christ’s brothers and sisters — right here?

About half of our regularly attending Club kids (almost all of whom qualify for federal lunch subsidies and whose lives may be much like what Ann Larson describes) are required to engage in service-learning as part of their membership in Torch or Keystone clubs. This experience generates the empowering discovery that even in their youth and lack of wealth, they have something to offer their community and its people. I remember vividly the Christmas-season phone call from an alumna, then in college, who wanted to know if we had a holiday service project she could bring her mother to do with her. “I want her to see that there are others worse off than us,” the girl said.

The girl had been helped to succeed; the girl had helped others in need; the girl was ready to help others succeed.

Do you think poor children should be helped to succeed in school? If so, how?

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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3 Responses to Why poor kids fail in school and how Christians respond: a random sidetrack

  1. Ann Larson says:

    Great post! I don’t really think enough about the connections between Christianity/religion and social justice work. I am glad to be reminded. Keep writing!

  2. Pingback: ‘Waiting for Superman’? He works in East Durham | Living the Life You Were Made For

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