"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Why Poverty Matters and Is an Excuse

Diane Ravitch has been getting a lot of press lately as she tours the country promoting her latest book, Reign of Error, The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. The book's popularity is sending shockwaves through the corporate ed deformer community who thought they could continue their smoke and mirrors show that started more than three decades ago. 

However, the hoax is over as more parents opt their kids out of the tests and the push back turns fierce.  The school privatization movement, once thought to be a crazy conspiracy theory is real and out in the open. An education policy built on punitive high stakes testing and junk science has finally been exposed as more and more parents, students and teachers find themselves struggling to survive under a blatantly oppressive and dysfunctional system. The smokescreen of blaming public school teachers for our nation's woes and global competitiveness is finally vanishing thanks to the disastrous consequences of growing economic inequality and poverty.  The propaganda campaign by people like Joel Klein, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee and all the other corporate education prostisuits who know nothing about poverty or education, worked for a while but like with any house of cards built on a faulty foundation, it is only a matter of time before the entire  deck comes crumbling down.

Now we have yet another new book about "why" poverty matters when it comes to academic performance. This book, however, was written by a Harvard economist and a Princeton psychologist. Let's use this resource  to change the conversation around education by taking the focus off of teachers and putting it where in belongs, on the policies of the last three decades that have given the United States the distinct honor of  having the highest rate of childhood poverty of all the advanced nation's at approximately 23% according to the latest UNICEF report.

Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir  have added another valuable tool that scientifically proves scarcity has a huge impact on our mental abilities and processes. 

An excerpt from

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

Scarcity does something similar to our mental processor. By constantly loading the mind with other processes, it leaves less “mind” for the task at hand. Scarcity directly reduces bandwidth — not a person’s inherent capacity, but how much of that capacity is currently available for use.

It may strike you as odd that a person’s “capacity” can be so easily affected, but that is precisely the point—we are used to thinking of cognitive capacity as fixed, when in fact it might change with circumstances.To see the effect of scarcity on fluid intelligence, an aspect of mental bandwidth, we ran some studies with our graduate student, Jiaying Zhao, where we presented people in a New Jersey mall with simple hypothetical scenarios, such as this one:
Imagine that your car has some trouble, which requires a $300 service. Your auto insurance will cover half the cost. You need to decide whether to go ahead and get the car fixed, or take a chance and hope that it lasts for a while longer. How would you go about making such a decision? Financially, would it be an easy or a difficult decision for you to make?
We then followed this question with a series of Raven’s Matrices problems, which are used to measure fluid intelligence and are common on IQ tests. Using self-reported household income we divided subjects, by median split, into rich and poor. In this set-up we found no statistically significant difference between the rich and poor mall-goers. Of course, there may been some difference but it was not big enough for us to detect in this sample. The rich and the poor looked equally smart.

Our study revealed that simply raising monetary concerns for the poor erodes cognitive performance even more than being seriously sleep deprived.

There is another way to understand the size of our findings. Because the Raven’s test is used to measure fluid intelligence, it has a direct analogue with IQ. Our effects correspond to between thirteen and fourteen IQ points. By most commonly used descriptive classifications of IQ, thirteen points can move you from the category of “average” to one labeled “superior” intelligence. Or, if you move in the other direction, losing thirteen points can take you from “average” to a category labeled “borderline deficient.” Remember: these differences are not between poor people and rich people. Rather, we are comparing how the same person performs under different circumstances. The same person has fewer IQ points when she is preoccupied by scarcity than when she is not. This is key to our story. The poor responded just like the rich when the car cost little to fix, when scarcity had not been rendered salient. Clearly, this is not about inherent cognitive capacity. Just like the processor that is slowed down by too many applications, the poor here appear worse because some of their bandwidth is being used elsewhere.

The Silver Lining
The poor stay poor, the lonely stay lonely, the busy stay busy, and diets fail. Scarcity creates a mindset that perpetuates scarcity. If all this seems bleak, consider the alternative viewpoint: The poor are poor because they lack skills. The lonely are lonely because they are unlikable; dieters lack will power; and the busy are busy because they lack the capacity to organize their lives. In this alternative view, scarcity is the consequence of deep personal problems, very difficult to change.The scarcity mindset, in contrast, is a contextual outcome, more open to remedies. Rather than a personal trait, it is the outcome of environmental conditions brought on by scarcity itself, conditions that can often be managed. The more we understand the dynamics of how scarcity works upon the human mind, the more likely we can find ways to avoid or at least alleviate the scarcity trap.

And, the more we understand about the "hoax" of the privatization movement and the dangers to America's public schools and the nation's poorest, most vulnerable children, we can start solving real problems by ending the high stakes testing insanity masquerading as education reform and understanding what it really is -- child abuse.

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