Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic. Stacey Campfield’s widely-ridiculed bill to reduce public assistance payments to parents whose children make bad grades isn’t really dead and buried, just relegated to Summer study. Sort of like a kid who failed a class, but gets another chance. Except that Campfield isn’t going to miss a meal or have his phone cut off for this failed effort.
Statistically, children from lower income households are more likely to have difficulty with academics. Solving the problem though, requires understanding why — and there are multiple reasons, not all of which apply to every child.
1) Many children from economically disadvantaged homes don’t have access to the same resources — books in the home, a computer with internet service, travel and experiences, parents who have the time or ability to help with homework, etc.
2) The number of families on public assistance are disproportionally single-parent households, where the parent-in-residence may be working multiple minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet.
3) Families on public assistance are much more likely to have lower levels of education themselves; in some cases, this results in education not being valued, but in others, a simple inability to help. Sometimes, it means that the vocabulary used in the home is much more limited than what the more-advantaged peers are exposed to; sometimes, it means that a child didn’t get enough sleep because he has to work to help support the family. All of those things impact school performance.
4) Like it or not, genetics usually does play a role in academic performance. While children from the deep end of the gene pool may go through hard times, it’s not likely to be long-term. In the case of generational welfare recipients, the kids are much more likely to be from the shallow end.
Lastly, grades are not the ultimate measure of learning. We, as a society, tend to equate good grades with mastery and poor grades with failure, but I don’t buy into the fact that poor grades are necessarily a failure to learn — perhaps a failure to comply with expectations. Longtime readers will recall some of my frustrations with Beta, whose geometry teacher once approached me with the concern that she “has a 110 test average and a 14 homework average.” Unfortunately, homework counted for a significant part of the grade, so in spite of the fact that she clearly knew the material, her grade wasn’t very good.
I know exactly what the problem was: if she understood the material, she spent her time on homework that she needed to do in order to learn it. Stuff that she already understood, she didn’t waste time on. In four weeks, Beta will receive her BS in Physics. In spite of her unapproved homework methodology, it worked for her.
We need to ensure that children from all socioeconomic backgrounds learn, and reach their fullest potential. That’s hard, because it’s tough to know exactly what that potential is. We need to be looking for ways to help, not ways to punish.
Want to ensure that children from families on public assistance can succeed in school, and break the cycle of dependency? Expand preschool. Provide computers and internet service that they can take home. Ensure that they interact with people who expose them to a larger vocabulary, new ideas, and encouragement to succeed. Challenge them, but respect them as children with potential they don’t even know they have.
There has to be a better way.