Saving the Poor With Science

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Extra-curricular programs for poor children may help them succeed in school, but do they get to the root of the problem? Mike Rose argues that intervention programs actually reinforce the individualistic paradigm that creates and justifies poverty.

A version of this blog was published as “Character Education Is Not Enough to Help Poor Kids” in the January 23, 2013 edition of The Christian Science Monitor. It is republished with permission from Mike Rose’s blog.

The foster care system failed Sam miserably. There wasn’t a nurturing household in his long string of placements. He grew up on his own, got into trouble with the law, kicked around in odd jobs, and found the community college where he turned his life around.

Sam is 25, a big guy with a full smile who cares deeply about education and leading a meaningful life. Though he’s been sleeping in his car for a semester–we finally got him housing–he’s maintained strong grades, participates in student government, and works on campus as a tutor and in a summer program for middle school kids.

Sam’s progress toward his associate degree has been stalled, however, because severe budget cuts forced his college to limit course offerings during the year and pretty much eliminate summer classes. He had colds and the flu through much of the time he lived in his car, and illness made it harder to concentrate–though he maintained a full load. And he had to miss classes when his car was impounded because of lapsed registration and parking tickets he couldn’t pay. Still, as he puts it, nothing will stop him.

There is an emerging opinion about poverty and the achievement gap which holds that we can boost the academic success of poor people like Sam–and younger incarnations of Sam particularly–through psychological and educational interventions that will help them develop the qualities of personality or character that Sam displays in abundance: perseverance, self control, and belief in one’s ability.

No doubt these are powerful qualities and contribute mightily to a successful life, regardless of how old you are or where you sit on the socioeconomic ladder. Western cultural history–from Aristotle to the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow–affirm these qualities, and they’ve been part of our folk wisdom about success well before Dale Carnegie made millions by promoting the power of positive thinking. But they’ve gained luster via economic modeling, psychological studies, and the technological advances of neuroscience. Because brain imaging allows researchers to see the frontal lobes light up when someone weighs a decision, these claims about character seem cutting edge. It is this aura of the new that contributes to a belief that we might have found a potent treatment for the achievement gap.

There is a diverse group of players involved in this rediscovery and championing of character, nicely summarized in an engaging new book by journalist Paul Tough, How Children Succeed, and in a recent airing of Public Radio International’s popular show “This American Life.” Nobel Laureate in economics James Heckman advocates early childhood intervention programs for poor kids. Charter schools like KIPP infuse character education throughout the school day. And a whole range of smaller extra-curricular and afterschool programs – from Chicago’s OneGoal to a chess club in a public school in Brooklyn focus their efforts in helping the children of the poor develop a range of mental strategies and shifts in perception aimed toward academic achievement.  I have worked with economically and educationally disadvantaged children and adults for forty years and know the importance of efforts like these. They need to be funded and expanded, for poor kids carry big burdens and have absurdly limited access to any kind of school-related enrichment, especially as inequality widens.

But we have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, to not assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty. My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes–mental conditioning for the poor–and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.

We have a longstanding shameful tendency in America to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the authors of a report from the Boston School Committee bemoaned the “undisciplined, uninstructed … inveterate forwardness and obstinancy” of their working-class and immigrant students. There was much talk in the Boston Report and elsewhere about teaching the poor “self-control,” “discipline,” ” earnestness” and “planning for the future.” Sound familiar?

Some poor families are devastated by violence, uprooting, substance abuse, and children are terribly affected. But some families hold together with iron-willed determination and instill values and habits of mind that middle-class families strive for. There’s as much variability among the poor as in any group, and we have to keep that fact squarely in our sights, for we easily slip into one-dimensional generalities about them. And, one more fact, an awful childhood wreaks damage, but is not destiny. God knows where and how Sam developed the qualities that keep him moving forward. But he has them.

Sam could be the poster boy for the advocates of character education; he possesses exactly the qualities they are trying to engender in young Sams and Samanthas. But what happens to Sam if after his Herculean effort he leaves the college that has given his heretofore chaotic life structure and finds limited jobs, or none at all. If he slams up against discrimination. If he can’t afford to leave a neighborhood that has weighed on him for years. If he gets in an accident or gets sick. What happens, in short, if the material world around him continues to blunt his drive and hope? Sam has been able to hold onto his dream with stunning tenacity, but what eventually happens to a dream deferred?

The further question to ask–and we need to keep asking it–is whether it is fair or moral in the United States of America that a young person should have to expend superhuman effort to complete a standard, even basic, education that will in the end benefit both him and society. The exertion required of Sam becomes another measure of inequality. He’s traversing the achievement gap alright, but with a backpack full of lead and a head-splitting level of stress.

Given a political climate that is antagonistic toward the welfare state and has further shredded our already compromised safety net, psychosocial intervention may be the only viable political response to poverty available. But can you imagine the outcry if, let’s say, an old toxic dump was discovered near Scarsdale or Beverly Hills and the National Institute of Health undertook a program to teach kids strategies to lessen the effects of the toxins but didn’t do anything to address the toxic dump itself?

We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else. We should use our science to figure out why that is so–and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.

Mike Rose is a writer and educator. In his recent book, Back to School, Rose turns the spotlight toward nontraditional students, community colleges, and adult education programs–all working together to create second chances, achieve dreams, and create a richer democracy.

Image: Little Pencil by D. Sharon Pruitt, licensed under Creative Commons.

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