The most significant challenge that every school in this country now faces is to bridge the educational attainment gap between the “haves” and “the have nots”; to ensure the achievement of disadvantaged students equals or even exceeds that of their more affluent peers. The government has made this one of its top priorities, throwing a large part of the education budget at it.
But the gap isn’t narrowing.
So, have they got it wrong? Not in the sense of trying to bridge that gap, which has always been a central aspiration of the vast majority of teachers, but on what poverty actually is today in the US and how to deal with its influence on educational outcomes?
As our society has become more and more materialistic, our definition of poverty has become more and more narrow in its parameters, focusing solely on the financial standing of families and individuals. The problem is, I think, that the most significant "poverty" in the US today is emotional poverty, mind-set poverty, aspiration poverty, in essence; “values poverty”. And this is a form of poverty that finance seems unable to fix.
If you want to visit a more “value-rich” nation, I can recommend Tanzania. The people there live with a level of poverty unbeknown to the vast majority of the US population. However, dig a little deeper and find out how the young people in that country see the world, experience relationships or spend their time; as a collective, they are infinitely happier than ours, which is pretty astonishing. They are “values rich”. With that in mind, do we need to widen the definition of poverty in this country to include not only children whose parents are on a low income but also, and perhaps even more significantly, those who are disadvantaged in other ways?
Imagine, for a second, that we gave equal standing to “values poverty” and “financial poverty”. Child A is above the financial poverty threshold. However, his parents simply don’t “parent” and even when they do, any kind of emotional intimacy or social connection is limited to a shout up the stairs to stop playing the PlayStation because its 1am. The child lacks any kind of cornerstone in their life, feels alone, struggles to communicate effectively and is desperate for love and attention. However, they do have an iPhone 6.
On the government’s current measure, they will be placed into the giant chasm of “OK”. Meanwhile, nearby, Child B has two parents who are both on welfare but offer him or her the spiritual, emotional and physical love that he or she needs as well as instilling the kind of values they would like their son or daughter to have. They excel at school and are comfortable in their own skin. Above all, Child B has the aspiration to do well, to lift them and their family out of the financial situation they are in. I would argue that both of these children are equally disadvantaged, but in completely different ways. Child A is “value poor” whereas Child B is “value rich”.
Why am I calling for this broadening of the definition of poverty? Because, I am sure, without addressing this so called “values poverty”, we have no chance of dealing with poverty in its more literal sense.
One component of any strategy to eliminate it must be the one component that has been missing for so many years; parental and student accountability. At the moment, responsibility for student performance seems to rest solely at the school gates. This is despite the fact that it’s well established that parents are the biggest stakeholders in their own children’s success or failure. The government’s response has been to offer parenting classes, extend school opening hours and ring-fence school budgets. Schools have responded by offering more and more after-school revision sessions and instigating a constant stream of worthy interventions. The support that is currently being offered to parents and students across this land is unrivalled in the history of education.
Yet, if parents and students don’t engage with that support, if they don’t take responsibility and embrace the help they are provided with, and if the student ultimately fails in their education, then schools are put in special measures, principals are sacked and teachers are denied pay rises.
All on the presumption that the educators are to blame. The view being pushed by the media and government that schools are simply service providers gives the ammunition for those same parents and students to shout from the hilltops that the service “wasn’t good enough” and the “system failed”. To change this, let me suggest a system whereby if parents and students are known to have opted out of education, they will still receive the same support, intervention and time as the next person. Of course they would. However, their “opt out” would also mean that schools could opt out of including their exam performance data in their own reports to the government. Fair is fair in the redistribution of accountability. If our young people are to become “value rich”, then the value of personal responsibility has to become a truly American value once again.
If parents and students, regardless of where they sit on the income scale, are held accountable in the same way as schools and teachers, then suddenly that equality of educational outcome that our whole society craves may become a reality.