Chances for Learning

359532891_680af26c0e “And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches” (3 Ne. 6:12).

For the last two years, my kids have gone to decidedly less-advantaged public schools. Out of necessity, we lived in a higher-density, lower-income neighborhood. There were a lot of rentals and turnover (though my own neighbors stayed stable for the entire two years). While our neighborhood wasn’t great, it also wasn’t scary, and our neighbors were kind and friendly, even if we frequently didn’t share a language. I knew my kids would be a minority in their schools, but it didn’t really hit me what that meant until the first day of school, when they were the only white kids at each of their bus-stops. Aware others frequently face those statistics in their own demographic helped me encourage my kids to enjoy school and make friends. My oldest son started middle-school, and while he made some good friends, he also had a terrible time. Bullying rapidly became a huge issue. I was forceful with the school about addressing the bullying, but my previously happy son was now loathing school. It was bad enough that I had to threaten police action at the school. I had hoped being in a different environment would be good for my kids, stretch them a little. It was a rough two years, and my youngest was the only one who managed to maintain her enjoyment of school.

Yesterday was the first day of a new school year. Over the summer, I got married and we moved to a house from our tiny townhouse. Our neighborhood is still diverse- but it’s in a noticeably higher tax-bracket socio-economically. All three kids came home with markedly different experiences from the previous two years. There was laughter and happiness. They each had good things to say about their schools and about their classmates. All three attended newly-constructed or newly-remodeled schools that were clean and bright and new. Most markedly, was my oldest son, the victim of such intense bullying. He reported, with a sigh of relief, there was “no crap at all, mom”. He said everyone was nice, the teachers were helpful, no one yelled at him for asking questions or not knowing where to go, no one called him names, no one pushed him into a locker, or shoved him, or stabbed him with a pencil in class. These were not isolated incidents at the old school- they happened from the first day on, for two years.

I’m worried that my experiment living where we did may have hurt my children’s attitudes about others. My oldest son has a subtle hostility towards boys who look like the ones who harmed him, and I don’t know what to do about it beyond the obvious talking about stereotypes and judgement.

There is also a deep sadness I find myself wrestling with; there is truth to the quality of education, schools, teachers and resources being tied to the value of the homes in the neighborhood. Kids in poorer schools are simply not getting the same education as kids in higher-income neighborhoods. They just aren’t. The facilities are run down, the textbooks are marred or old, the teachers are exhausted and frequently end up doing more damage control than teaching, and everyone wants out. These facts are reflected in not just the test scores, but in everything, including social skills and coping mechanisms. It makes me really sad, and makes me feel utterly helpless.

And I feel terrible, because I’m glad my kids are not at those schools anymore, and I know they will benefit in ways the kids still stuck there will not. And it’s awful. The words of 3 Nephi are a pretty clear and damning indictment when  “chances for learning” are deprived, and of the chasm between the educated, and those without. I’ve witnessed now what lack of that chance looks like. It’s not pretty. And it reflects on all of us. Where does one even begin to address it?

For additional reading pertinent to this subject, I highly recommend The Hunger Banquet, by John F.

My experience is personal and, of course, not empirical, however it’s a very real, in-the-trenches example of a lived experience. I’m hoping in the comments we can have a discussion on ways to address the realities of “chances for learning”.


  1. I spoke to a school district superintendent recently, and he told me the high school in his district was using history textbooks so old they didn’t mention 9/11. This is a school district in the Mormon Corridor, and it’s suffering from some massive reduced funding from the state. The state cut education funding a few years back and the local rural community is too poor to make up the difference.

    I’ve also lived in places in the U.S. where the public schools were so horrible that almost everyone who wasn’t actually in poverty sent their kids to private schools (or moved way out to the distant suburbs where the public schools were better). Lower middle class parents were making huge financial sacrifices so that their kids could attend decent schools.

  2. For these reasons and more I have a very hard time with the “keep education local” mentality. Because of differences in local funding the most fortunate are rewarded (public schools in rich districts look like private boarding schools) and the least fortunate are punished. And we think leadership roulette is bad? Educational roulette is worse.

    I worked for a charitable foundation in Las Vegas that ran inner city charter schools. The only hope they had was private and corporate fundraising, which was admittedly easier with a celebrety’s name attached. But the lack of opportunity for those kids we worked with was startling.

  3. This has weighed heavily on my mind as we’ve looked for a home to buy. On the one hand, I want my kids to have a positive experience and to be reasonably well prepared to thrive. On the other hand, I don’t want to contribute to the inequality. It’s a hard question really, because it can feel like the only way to make a real difference is to sacrifice one’s own children’s experience, and that’s not going to fare well in any individual’s cost/benefit analysis. Hard questions.

  4. Em, I agree- and that’s what I kept telling myself during our two years at the disadvantaged schools. I got involved. The teachers and administrators knew me, my kids kept their grades up, but we were a drop in a bucket and weren’t making any difference at all. I imagine the teachers feel this compounded over and over. Had I not gotten married, I would have still moved this summer- I wasn’t willing any longer to sacrifice my kids. But I’m painfully aware that I had that *choice*, where a great many others do not.

  5. Thank you, Tracy. This topic is near and dear and personal to me.

    I spent over a decade working in educational intervention, focused mostly on inner-city and extreme rural schools. The percent of kids who leave 2nd Grade reading below grade level who graduate still reading below grade level is staggering, so my focus was early childhood literacy. I was selling an amazing pre-literacy program that helped change kids’ abilities and future opportunities, but the rural schools often lacked the funding of the inner-city schools, so they had a hard time purchasing it. The inner-city schools, otoh, had so many other problems (of all kinds, including those you highlighted in your post) that I often despaired of the children maintaining the growth they experienced as a result of our K-2 program. For the first time in my life, I felt a bit of what Mormon described when he talked about leading people with no real faith in the outcome. It wasn’t quite that all-encompassingly bleak, but it was there and extremely discouraging.

    As a result of that experience, I will never send my kids to such schools if I have any choice in the matter – even as I dislike intellectually voucher systems and anything else that abandons the poorest among us and takes role models from their educational lives. It breaks my heart, but I will not sacrifice my children on the altar of theoretical idealism. The system is broken fundamentally, and I can’t fix it. I can work to salvage individual lives in whatever ways are possible, but I can’t throw my own kids into the grinder.

    Finally, as a personal rant, we live in an age where textbooks should be available online nearly free of charge for schools. If schools want to print them and use them as traditional books, they ought to be able to do so for just the cost of printing. It is unconscionable that schools have to use old textbooks because they can’t afford to buy newer ones from publishing companies that price them in order to maintain a business and profit from providing information that ought to be available to all. This is the 21st Century, for crying out loud, when anyone can publish what they write – and even print it for a nominal fee. Doing what I envision would destroy the traditional educational publishing companies, but it’s time for the old version of them to be destroyed.

  6. I went to a public high school with a large contingent of the very poor. Adding to that the newness of integration (we were the first class to have all 4 years of high school be integrated) and the racial tensions that caused, plus the panic of the authorities who kept restricting the fun things more and more in a desperate attempt to bring more order, and very little academics ended up going on in our school. We were sort of a farm league for the local prisons, in fact. There was a lot of bullying going on and a lot of pent-up anger barely held in check. But we managed it.

    I got an education in class dynamics and racial dynamics that I couldn’t have gotten any other way. We weren’t learning much, if any, Math, Science, Lit, or Languages, but we learned how to not be afraid of poor people (they are almost all just coping with difficult circumstances), or people who are a different race, in a situation in which no race was actually dominant — unique in my life so far. We learned how to respond to bullying. We made friendships across racial lines, and occasionally across class lines as well. There were still black tables and white tables at lunch. We didn’t become colorblind. But there was connection there, and it mattered.

    So when I got to college I did have to take remedial chem and math to catch up. But all in all I’m glad I had the experience I had in high school. I started there a naive, frightened, shy girl and when I graduated, I felt competent and able to hold my own in almost any social situation. Would I put my kids in such a situation, given what I know? I really don’t think so. I would support them if that’s what they chose, I think. But I wouldn’t make that choice for them. My parents really had no idea of the actual dangers we faced.

    I think for there to be real equality and opportunity in the U.S. that we need to pool all the education money and fund everyone equally. I think that’s what we should do. And also, quit resegregating the schools we integrated with so much difficulty in the 70s! That just totally sucks that we went through all that to try to become one people, and then it gets undone. That’s the least we can do as a society is re-integrate our schools!

  7. I wouldn’t assume if the school in the poor district was blessed with better books and a nicer building the bullying would go away. It’s a very difficult problem, which is why I sympathized with stories told about Romney when he was a bishop in Boston really struggling over how to help the poor.

    Anyone who’s had surplus money and given it, setup jobs, etc. for poor people and then seen it fall apart knows this by experience. I’ve come to the conclusion that the gospel really is the best hope.

    I know that sometimes flies in the face of liberal utpoianism though.

  8. Ray, just a small counter to your rant–the generation of quality content is not free. Writers and editors (oh, hey, is my self-interest showing? ;) ) need to earn a living, too. It’s true that book publishers can now _distribute_ that content much less expensively than they used to be able to, and those savings ought to be passed on to disadvantaged schools, but it will never be “nearly free of charge” to have textbooks that are more reliable than Wikipedia entries.

  9. Textbooks are, of course, a tricky issue. And all is NOT well in Zion on that front either:

    As the article notes, any students using these particular textbooks (or others that are similarly problematic and dogmatic) face “being crippled educationally and will be ill-prepared to take part in any serious program of instruction of American government and law.”

    I’m with Kristine that textbook editing needs to be a scholarly endeavor — Wikipedia simply will not do. This doesn’t diminish Ray’s perspective, which is valid.

    I don’t have answers to the issue of equalizing opportunities for education for our children except to say that Tracy is exactly right to be distressed by this. The Book of Mormon is clear that lack of equal access to opportunities for learning is a key signal of a society’s moral decay and is closely linked to income inequality, a topic that underlies the entire narrative of The Book of Mormon and directly contributes to the downfall of at least four civilizations described in that book.

    Perhaps a small start is to get textbooks like those referred to in the link out of state-funded schools and make sure that all kids have equal access to quality, accurate textbooks to shape their education. If parents want to indoctrinate their children with theories concocted by the likes of Cleon Skousen, they are and always will be free to do so in the privacy of their homes. But we need to make sure that all children have access to good textbooks in their schools.

  10. DQ, you’re absolutely right in that providing new textbooks or a nicer building wouldn’t solve the problem- which is part of the greater point I was trying to make. The problems aren’t just in lower test scores- but in coping skills, social skills, stability, home life- ALL of which are greatly effected by poverty- whether the poverty is urban, rural or somewhere in between- it’s grinding and devastating. It’s spiral so large it’s difficult to even find a place to begin to talk about it, let alone make a difference.

    What I was equating was that the better neighborhood we now live in isn’t just reflective of greater income- it’s evidence of higher education, of parents who have leisure time and perhaps extra money to support their kids in activities and studies, of families with more stability, of families who understand and support their kids in their studies, and of kids who are not hungry at the end of the day. All of this is going to effect what happens at school every day.

    And we’re all a part of it.

  11. Kristine is correct- good textbooks require a host of specialized people with specialized skills to compile, and those people should be compensated. However, there must be a revolution around the way textbooks are marketed and sold- the costs are exponentially high.

  12. I understand that textbooks need to be produced – but, as Tracy said, there has to be a radical change in the system. I would love to see a non-profit entity, for example, create high-quality materials and make them available at a greatly reduced price – perhaps an annual subscription rate that would be exponentially lower than the current industry rate.

    It could be done, but it would take a conscious effort to do so. Nationalizing what is taught would be a great first step, but I understand how difficult that would be in our current political climate.

  13. Some schools suffer from enormous behavioral problems and a lack of funding. More money could help (smaller class sizes, better teachers, more police presence in the school, etc.) but obviously there would still be problems.

    But there are also a lot of schools where behavior isn’t the issue–lack of funding is. (Well, and the worship of school sports, but that’s a whole other issue). I live in a small town/rural school district that’s relatively poor. It’s in the Mormon Corridor, and the kids are pretty average kids. The problems are these: starting salary for teachers is around $30,000, and class sizes are huge (35 is typical for a standard high school class). Nearby school districts, although by no means wealthy, can offer their teachers a few thousand more ($33,000, for example) with slightly smaller class sizes. So, while we have some fantastic teachers, if the very best teachers want a better deal they’ll go to a nearby district–or they’ll move to Wyoming, where teachers actually make decent money. So we’re losing out on some teacher quality, and our gets aren’t getting the individualized attention they need because of the huge classroom size.

    So it’s not just inner-city kids who aren’t getting the kind of education they should be getting. And, while adequate funding doesn’t solve all our problems, it would help solve many of them.

  14. Yes, the education problem that Tracy highlights isn’t just located in the “inner-city” schools that get written off — it affects rural schools in similar ways. Good schools are either something the rich can pay for in the inner-cities (though when discussing them, we don’t use the term “inner-city”) or that appear in the suburbs as people who have gathered there vote for more generous funding for their own local schools.

  15. We moved last year. I looked for areas where more people were married. Our old location had changed in the 10 years since my oldest went to kindergarten and I was not happy about our youngest entering kindergarten. Once I managed to find the statistics about the percentage of married households dropping 10% in 10 years, I knew it wasn’t my imagination that my kids were growing up where our family of mom, dad & four kids were the odd ones out. My kids were in an average performance area.
    At the new middle school, my son immediately commented that the kids were nicer. Immediately.
    Money spent on education is not the issue. Throwing more money at it won’t help a whole lot. I saw the issue as largely cultural and socioeconomic. There is still plenty of diversity in our new area, but it skews to different cultural groups.

  16. Nice, jks–I’d like to think that my bright, (usually) well-behaved children with high test scores aren’t dragging down the educational system merely because their parents are divorced. But clearly, you have found out our dirty little secret.

  17. Education is such a mish mash – always the tie tug of war, always the push and pull between two opposite forces. Should we have a single standard system that is capable of meeting all needs and is enriched by having all the money, all the talent, and all the brains? Or are we okay in a system where the quality of education is determined by what one can afford with economic and regional limitations? We live in a system now that is such a mishmash of these two extremes.

    My husband and I, both teachers, began our careers in a small, poor rural community. When we transitioned to D.C. and took positions subbing in the Arlington district and teaching in the D.C. district, it seemed like night and day! We had come from a place serving minority populations, high risk students, with very high rural poverty, and I was so frustrated sometimes with the collective wisdom that said our students were just waiting to come of age and collect their welfare check (not true!), but for all that we were in a district that had the money for supplies and technology. They weren’t perfect and I could make a very long list of concerns I had about the vision of the administration and the way money was spent, but somehow they had the money in the first place so credit where credit is due. The students benefited from having those resources.

    So we were pretty shocked when my husband got a job at a public charter in D.C. with a student population no less in high needs yet there was no money for supplies or technology. My husband rationed paper and serviced the three sometimes working computers he had in his room himself (there was no IT department support), and too much of his supplies came out of pocket. But for all that, he had kids eating lunch with the First Lady at the White House. My friend, a graduate of the Cleveland Clinic, did a fellowship with NIH and as part of that fellowship, visited local schools weekly to teach science lessons. Standard field trips in D.C. get to include all the Smithsonian museums. I would have done a lot to give my rural students opportunities like that which were so far from their grasp. It’s not a simple problem sorting out an even distribution of talent, money, and opportunities.

    And Ray, amen and amen again! The stranglehold of for profit companies and the textbook boards of California and Texas on vapid, empty textbooks that cost way too much and deliver disconnected and fragmented information are just unconscionable at this point. High quality information freely available to all students is a big step in creating parity.

  18. This post was a good reminder that as a community member whose kids are nearly grown I can still help children learn. I can’t fix textbooks or crowded classrooms. I can visit classes and be a helper, I can arrange to be a tutor at the family homeless shelter, I can work with my community lunch bag program to make sure the lower income kids get a meal for the weekend. I am really glad you wrote this and the comments – your words inspired me to make this year better for someone else. Thanks.

  19. I’m a huge proponent of giving people choices if at all possible. Allow parents to choose between several public schools (but don’t let those choices resegregate schools); approve vouchers so private schools are a more affordable choice; make online classes available so students can get a decent education even if the public school environment is awful; equalize funding so families aren’t forced into paying more for housing than they can afford or resigning themselves to a lower-quality education; focus on the underrepresented, both in urban and rural areas; and pay teachers decent salaries so everyone has access to good teachers since I believe good teachers are the single more important thing in an education.

  20. Vouchers and other ideas for privatizing education do NOT constitute abandoning the poorest among us. Vouchers level the playing field by granting the poorest families the ability to send their kids to a decent school–a privilege already enjoyed by better-off families. The poorest students are the biggest beneficiaries of vouchers.

  21. jks, I take issue alongside Kristine. That’s a horribly small-minded and wrong-headed thing to say. This is an insanely complex issue, with a massive factors on a myriad of fronts: social, financial, educational, geographic, political, racial, and on and on and on… My marital status didn’t effect my children’s academic performance nor their kindness and general behavior towards others. What did effect us, profoundly, was struggling to make ends meet, and attending poor schools because I couldn’t afford a more financially-stable neighborhood.

    Correlation =/= causation wrt divorce.

  22. Here’s what I don’t understand when it comes to choice-ing kids to schools or offering vouchers: How is the process kept from immediately stratifying? Every parent is going to want their child in the best school and parents with resources are going to find a way to make that happen. There will still be schools at the bottom of the pile no one wants to attend, and what then of those kids?

  23. I think it’s also important to note that so many kids do not even get a shot at an elementary education. This includes many kids in the LDS Church, from whom I received a heavily subsidized university education. I remember hearing the verse mentioned at my graduation when Dean Rosenberg from the College of Humanities spoke at BYU. I have no idea who the general authority was at graduation that year, but I certainly remember his talk.

  24. Money makes a big difference, obviously. But culture plays an equally important role. And I’m not using “culture” as code for race or marital status. I’m a middle class person in a middle class neighborhood, and my children have the advantage of being raised in a home with the so-called middle class values, which means that even if they’re lazy by nature (which they come by honestly), they have managed to absorb the message that education is important. Obviously, not every child comes from a home or community where education is valued; that is in itself a problem. However, it is difficult for even an internally motivated student to thrive in a school with poor resources and a poor learning environment.

    I’m not a particularly involved parent, but my kids benefit from living in an area where the vast majority of parents not only instill the proper values in their kids but are actively involved in the schools. When parental involvement is high, schools are better. Parental involvement correlates with higher income for some fairly obvious reasons. Parents who work full-time at low-paying jobs don’t tend to have time to volunteer in schools. Suburban schools (like the ones I send my kids to) tend to have PTOs comprised of overachieving SAHMs who not only do the fundraising but are in the classrooms all the time and see what goes on (or doesn’t) during the school day. All of the students benefit from these parents’ advocacy on behalf of their own children, including those students whose parents aren’t as involved. In wealthy areas, this advocacy translates to better resources (because the parents are willing and able to shell out their own money for extras). But more parental involvement means a better-quality education even when there isn’t as much money to spend–not only because squeaky wheels get greased but because if you care enough to be involved in your kid’s education, your kid is probably also absorbing some of those vaunted middle-class values and contributing positively to the overall learning environment of the school.

    In short, money matters–a lot–but all the money in the world can’t overcome problems that are not caused by lack of money. In individual cases, a (sufficiently) motivated student can get a better education by going to a school in a wealthier area, but schools themselves don’t get better just by spending money on more (or improved) resources. In some areas, resources may be the only difference between a successful school and a failing school. In other areas, there are deeper problems in the community that school isn’t designed to address. You can only try to compensate for those problems. We’d like to hit on a strategy that solves the problem globally–if every school just had x or did x, most students would thrive–but there isn’t one. I don’t think national standards are the answer; the federal government is too far removed from the situation on the ground and a single program isn’t going to work for every school in the country. Individual schools need more freedom (and power) to institute programs that address their particular challenges.

  25. Madhousewife:

    Individual schools need more freedom (and power) to institute programs that address their particular challenges.

    I heartily agree. I think the teachers on the ground and in the trenches are the ones who are going to have the best sense of what is needed, and ultimately be the ones who come up with creative solutions.

    My children attended an experimental school before we moved. It was formed by a group of teachers and admins who wanted to give something different a try- still a public school, but you had to choice your child in, and if you went there, no bus service was provided. It was k-8 and was using far different methods of teaching and learning that the rest of the district. They were having phenomenal success, and when I moved, there was a wait-list of more than 300 for kindergarten. The following year, because of complaints of unfairness from teachers and parents, the district removed their charter, replaced the principal, claimed it wasn’t fair to have one school with different rules, and turned them back into a regular elementary school. It lasted almost ten years.

    This is a huge example of a failure. What should have happened is more schools should have looked at what they were doing right and tried to implement the policies in other schools.

  26. I teach high school in an affluent suburb. Sometimes I can’t believe how much we struggle to fund simple things, and our class sizes are getting bigger and bigger. The school supplies that we need are frequently supplied by PTO fund raisers. But I no longer worry about my situation, when I talk to my daughter.

    She teaches in inner city Detroit, through Teach for America. Her students don’t have calculators or paper or binders. She went to print her “syllabus” on the high school’s only printer, and ran into a long line of teachers. When the paper ran out, she asked the main office for more, and they told her they didn’t really have any (the paper she brought in from home ended up being used by all the teachers in the school that day).

    So, money doesn’t solve all the problems. Her students still have difficult lives and come from families which frequently don’t value education. But more money REALLY HELPS. I wish the federal government would get out of the business of dictating curriculum and teacher evaluation rules, and into the business of making certain that all schools get the funding that they need.

    Things that I take for granted (like being able to use all the paper that I want) she has to pay for herself. It’s been a real eye-opening experience for me.

  27. madhousewife, tjohn–thanks for highlighting the complexities of the situation. Clearly, there are cultural problems that aren’t going to be solved with money, but I think what we mostly mean when we say “throwing money at the problems doesn’t help” is really “we are unwilling to even consider spending the gigantic amounts of money that *would* actually help.” (The Harlem Children’s Zone is a pretty interesting and pretty successful example of trying to address both cultural and academic issues, but it is expensive on a scale that we simply are unwilling to contemplate for any significant fraction of poor children in our country. Mostly, I think we don’t care as much as we’d like to think we do about other people’s children. It’s a painful idea to contemplate.

    Also, I think jks isn’t entirely wrong to use marriage statistics as a proxy for some of the aspects of culture that madhousewife points to. It’s just that there are more and less hurtful ways of deploying oversimplified social science, and it’s hard being on the wrong end of those unintentionally wounding generalizations. I apologize for the angry response, though, jks–I should have taken a few deep breaths before I started typing. There’s a real temptation to use social science as a sort of cheap security blanket, to reassure ourselves that we are better than those other people who don’t value education or discipline their children or stay married or try harder to get a job or whatever. (And I’m totally including myself in that indictment, even though my temptations to demographically-based pride differ a little from others’!)

  28. John Mansfield says:

    Well, how much was the funding per student in Tracy M’s children’s old schools, and now much in their new ones?

  29. Revamping the funding mechanisms in many areas is critical, and the cost of textbooks I mentioned earlier is an important aspect of needed change, but I agree that money, though extremely important, isn’t the silver bullet answer. The single biggest indicator of success I saw in all the research I did for decades in the educational outreach arena was simple but so very hard to address:

    **Literacy level and math competency upon entrance into kindergarten**

    Children who know the alphabet (at least) and understand the concepts of reading and simple math when they enter kindergarten (ideally, no later than age five) tend to succeed, even in struggling schools; those who don’t (for example, at the extreme, those we served who didn’t even understand that an alphabet and math exist) tend to fall farther and farther behind as they rise through the grades.

    What’s the difference?

    Parental involvement – NOT necessarily parental education level, although parental education obviously is a key indicator. Poor kids with involved parents tend to do far better than poor kids with uninvolved parents – and the same is true of middle-upper class children.

    Parental involvement is a complex, horrendously difficult issue.

  30. I wonder that people jumped to not married households = divorced. I am extremely concerned about the out of wedlock statistics. I was also concerned about the cycle of mom’s boyfriends’ living with children. Sometimes mom’s boyfriend is a blessing to mom and children both, but statistically mom’s boyfriend is high risk for physical or sexual abuse.
    I think it is valid concern when you want your children to grow up and get married and have kids to let them see examples of successful marriages. When my teenagers who are trying to make their own way in life and forming their own opinions, I wanted them to have some examples besides just our family to look at.
    I could also say it was also that I wanted them to have friends who were college bound. I also wanted a ward that had families with kids older than 5. Going to a ward with almost no teenagers was difficult. It was even hard on me to be practically the only woman in my 40s. For years I would have the daily mental struggle wondering if I was hurting my kids by staying there.
    So yes I moved to somewhere where there are families with children. I checked the statistics about households with children under 18. My old neighborhood had older people whose children had all grown up. The bus had to travel for miles and miles to get full. Here, on this street there are families in almost every house!!!! The bus stops for a bunch of kids, goes two blocks and then stops for more kids! It’s amazing.
    I did not mean to offend anyone who is divorced.
    Just for me, I get extremely sad at the fact that 60% children born to women in their 20s are to nonmarried parents. That is our future.
    Studies show that more and more marriage is for the rich. The fact that the economic lower end no longer marries as much and less likely to stay married is making the economic divide even bigger.

  31. “Studies show that more and more marriage is for the rich. The fact that the economic lower end no longer marries as much and less likely to stay married is making the economic divide even bigger.”

    Doesn’t this show that the Book of Mormon is correct in its constant focus on the evils of income inequality that leads to class divides? Studies show that marriage is actually stronger than ever — for people who are middle class or above and who have college educations. But among the lower middle class and poor people, marriage rates are lower than in the past. So what if we worked on the income inequality problem and the class divides as the focus of our efforts to strengthen families? I know, sounds crazy — I can’t ever recall hearing this suggestion at Church!

  32. I don’t like the idea of vouchers if that’s the only alternative to attending your neighborhood school. I think vouchers are a better idea when they are just one of the options used to give families more choices.

    I think it helps if the schools are diverse and there isn’t one obvious “best” choice for everyone. I might want to send my kids to a school that emphasizes foreign languages when someone else might prefer a STEM emphasis school. Some families might choose a school that is near a parent’s workplace, and some might want the school that’s close to home. Some might just look at test scores. Some might want a lot of ethnic diversity. Some might send each of their children to a different school.

    I think letting people choose only works if there really are a lot of valid options, and I don’t think you can have that without equalizing funding, so that’s where I’d start.

  33. john f., marriage is for the rich because divorce is almost always a financial disaster.

  34. As is having children outside of wedlock.

  35. I’m all for spending more money as long as it’s for stuff that works. I’m with tjohn–if the federal government’s going to be intimately involved in education, it should be providing money for things like facilities and basic resources, and leaving curriculum decisions to people who actually interact with students. Maybe have special grants for printer paper. Insert emoticon.

  36. John f, preaching the gospel and becoming converted brings people out of poverty. I’ve seen it time and again. It’s not immediate, but like conversion you just t baptized and be converted. You just can’t take a class or distribute income and solve inequality. The gospel works.

  37. I believe that the Gospel works as well. I wonder, though, whether our current culture in the Church (over the last 50 years or so) tends to make CEOs of companies feel like it’s immoral to make more than 800 times what their workers make (as opposed to 40 times more in the 1950s, when we had more of a stakeholder rather than shareholder society/mentality), or does the current Church culture create an attitude of entitlement in wealthy Mormons by which they believe that they are “makers” by virtue of being successful and wealthy, and people languishing in the “inner-cities” are “takers” because they’re poor and single parents and, well, the proof’s in the pudding, isn’t it? (Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he has these disadvantages?)

    In other words, does our current Church culture and the political impulses that have shaped it adequately address income inequality as a systemic problem similar to what occurred in the Book of Mormon and triggered societal downfall multiple times? Yes, the Gospel works. But are we going to be able to address systemic inequality under our current cultural/political paradigms in the Church? Or have we set up a major stumbling block for members to allow the Gospel to create the solutions to which you’ve alluded?

  38. If you distinguish between the varieties of single parents (never married vs. Divorced vs. Widowed), it pays to use precise language. Never-married parents and their offspring are a lot worse off than divorced families. Wealthy people can afford to have kids out of wedlock; most other people can’t. This is one of those problems that schools and governments can’t fix, unless you want to live under a totalitarian system (which may be less expensive, all things considered).
    But since you can’t fix the problem globally, you have to settle for mitigating the problem locally. Empowering individual students and families with things like vouchers addresses the problem to some extent, but freeing the public schools to compete with other, more innovative educational programs would help more students. But that’s a political problem. (And here is where we all retreat to our individual utopias.

  39. I read “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough last year, and the basic premise is that it isn’t race or poverty that causes failure or success — it’s trauma. Trauma, especially early in life, literally rewires brain chemistry and how it makes decisions. From my goodreads review:

    The politics of disadvantage and poverty have morphed into the political firestorm called education reform. And when we talk about the root causes of poverty, we aren’t focusing on what science is telling us what is doing the most damage. Because in politics anytime you use the terms “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal to make your point, you’ve got trouble”. Another trouble our society has in solving the problem is that it’s an emotionally charged issue – those above poverty talking and lecturing those below poverty is ugly and messy, especially when you add race to the mix. I loved how he explained the last reason it’s hard to solve the problem: politics. The new science of adversity doesn’t make Democrats or Republicans happy. To quote the book:

    To liberals, the science is saying that conservatives are correct on one very important point: character matters. There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths…. of: conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance, and optimism.

    Where the typical conservative argument on poverty falls short is that it often stops right there: Character matters . . . and that’s it. There’s not much society can do until poor people shape up and somehow develop better character. In the meantime, the rest of us are off the hook. We can lecture poor people, we can punish them if they don’t behave the way we tell them to, but that’s where our responsibility ends.

    But in fact, this science suggests a very different reality. It says the character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up. That means the rest of us – society as a whole – can do an enormous amount to influence the development in children.

  40. tjohn: “I wish the federal government would get out of the business of dictating curriculum and teacher evaluation rules, and into the business of making certain that all schools get the funding that they need.”

    It’s a nice sentiment, but the reality is that money never comes without standards. Not for anything. Can you imagine if a local school district in San Francisco decided to have Harvey Milk celebration week and spent federal money on that? The taxpayers in red states would flip. And vice versa on other things. If you get money, you get rules on how to spend it, and that’s because of the demands of small government types and big government ones alike.

  41. john f, I just read your Hunger Banquet post. Your daughters will never forget that experience! Twenty years ago, I had a high school teacher create a similar scenario, where each student was placed in one of 3 countries. I was placed in Canada, where we enjoyed unlimited pencils, paper, doughnuts and trips to the water fountain! Another group was sparsely equipped with one pencil, a piece of paper, a doughnut to share and a cup of water. A third group had no writing utensils, no food or water and no freedom of movement, standing room only. We were also assigned profiles with different levels of education and literacy levels. This was important because each group was required to write a report on the exercise. At one point we Canadians were allowed to choose some classmates to emigrate. Of course everyone was desperate to come, if only to get their name on an assignment. We were required to review their credentials and choose the “best qualified” candidates to join our country. We naturally bypassed the illiterate and well really, the most needy. We chose the few that were “most like us” and brought them over. Needless to say, as a real life Canadian, it was a perspective changing experience that changed my view of immigration and poverty forever.

  42. Money solves most educational problems.
    Having jobs that pay enough gives free time to a family and stabilizes relationships.
    Money pays for adequate buildings and supplies.
    Money pays for teachers, guidance counselors, nurses, coaches, extra- curricular activities.
    Money pays for nutritious lunches and health workers.
    Money pays for extra tutors, remedial educators and special education services.
    Money pays for after school programs for working families.
    Money pays for school buses and their maintenance.
    Money pays for gifted student programs.
    Money pays for computers, books and technology.

    Now that I think about it, there is very little in education that can’t be improved with money. Leveling the playing field between schools by (gasp!) transferring money from the rich schools to the poor schools would help close the appalling between the haves and have nots. I’m so glad Tracy’s kids had the opportunity to move to a better neighborhood. I know what it’s like to not have a choice and it sucks.

  43. Federal Title 1 dollars do in fact go to disadvantaged public schools, with the aim of leveling the playing field somewhat. Per pupil expenditures are pretty crazy when you start diving into the data — you definitely do not always find what you expect. Part of the problem is that there is so little transparency — difficult to compare data across school districts because of different reporting practices, and there is no central clearinghouse for gathering and reporting the data.

  44. So, I think john f makes some very important points.
    In Britain parents have had the right to choose a school for some years now, rather than a school allocation be based on address. However, schools can also set the criteria they use to select students, and not everyone gets their first choice. Where I live there has been a lot of investment in school buildings, as well as combining of a failing school with a successful school. One school runs a lottery system where students sit a test and are banded according to result and then places allocated on the basis of an equal percentage of each band based on nearest to the school first. The school my kids attend is CofE so a set number of places are reserved for practicing CofE a d Methodists, then other places available to practicing members of any other faith, to siblings of current students, and finally proximity to the school. All schools must give first priority for places to children in government care, and those with a statement of special educational need. Additionally, the funding is skewed so that schools receive more money for deprived students (determined for funding purposes by the percentage receiving free school meals). Good schools mentor underperforming schools. Finally, from the salaries mentioned in the comments, I think it is safe to say we also pay teachers more.

  45. To add ( sorry, getting a bit long and using mobile device), we do have a national curriculum. Teachers do get tired of the constant tinkering with the curriculum, the paperwork required for the constant monitoring of student progress, and constant assessment of schools, which tend to be regarded as crude measures, but I do think things have improved since I was at school and none of those things were in place. I’ve got to think it’s preferable to having to provide their own materials to be able to teach.

  46. Russ Frandsen says:

    My heart is broken when i read of young children with so much excitement crushed by the schools. In California school spending is set at the State Level. typically, the large inner city school districts receive thousands of dollars more per pupil than the suburban schools. in California, the problem is not the mis-allocation of resources between districts. Based on my own in-exact observations, i believe most big-city schools across the country receive more per pupil than the suburban districts. i personally believe major problems (but not the only problems since many stem from social pathologies unconnected to the schools) stem from school bureaucracies, politics and state and federal mandates. My own view is that with a fully funded voucher system, a vast army of capable committed and effective Black and Hispanic social entrepreneurs would arise providing effective, safe and attractive private schooling. Many mothers and fathers would jump at the chance for alternatives to the current system. i yearn for the day when that will happen.

  47. The opposite is the case in New York where a thirteen-year lawsuit to redress the chronic underfunding of city schools compared to the suburbs was fought all the way by the state. As for charter schools, like public schools there are some excellent ones and some mediocre ones, but on average, educational outcomes are not any better. One metric by which charter schools have jumped way ahead is the salaries their executives pay themselves.

  48. It is precisely because these big, complex, systemic problems require large, coordinated solutions to make headway that the idea of Zion is so appealing to me theologically and I think somewhat a corrective to the particular strong-form free markets and invidividualism will solve everything ideologies that sometime run in our circles today. I like at least the idealism that together we can do better. That together we can restructure society to balance equal opportunity, adequate resouces and agency. Yet the problems seem so overwhelming you want to give up. And of course education policy is the third rail of US lefty debate. You want to see died in the wool democrats turn on each other like rabid cats, start a real discussion on education and school policy! At least from my experience of 6 years in Cambridge, MA heavily involved in a big school district reorganization working along with some other parents to save my kids public school Portuguese bilingual program.

    I really like regulated, limited choice/competition set ups that allow parents to select schools with different philosophies and emphases that also balance SES at each school. However, these days my kids are attending a crazy expensive international private school in an education obsessed country. Their class size is roughly about 8-10 kids per well-paid teacher. Mostly expat kids or kids from local high income homes. And there is just no comparison to our Cambridge public school whose teachers we loved and advocated for. Money matters and my very real white liberal guilt aside the school will probably handcuff us here because we can’t replace it even in a good US public school. My kids are thriving in it. Every child deserves that. Every. Child. I know it is impossible to provide this level of education to all children right now, just resource wise. But it does motivate me to try and do something to pass on something of our good fortune to another family and we work hard every day to help our children understand how lucky they are. Where much is given much is required……

  49. We used to live in a school district where money was not an issue for 90% of the residents. It was amazing the education my kids got. Parents would threaten if you don’t do x, y & z, I will pull my child out and go to a private school. They weren’t empty threats either–several backed it up with their actions. Our school basically raised their standards and I felt like my children benefited by receiving almost a private school education equivalent at our public school.

    One great thing that happened is that a teacher in our school was talking to one of her college roommates who was teaching in a school district in the inner city. She talked about old textbooks, lack of books in their library, the disparity between the two schools they each respectively taught at, etc. Our school PTO decided to “adopt” this school and did some great things. Book drives 3 times a year where we took over van-loads of books and textbooks to this school. When we switched curriculum, our (only a couple years old) textbooks went to them. When we ordered scholastic book orders, instead of the free books going to our teachers, they let the teachers of this inner city school get this reward and select NEW books that would greatly benefit their children. I know what we did was just a drop in the bucket compared to all of the children and school districts that are disadvantaged, but if every ‘well off’ school took this on, think of the ripple effects this would bring. Reading the thank you notes from these kids were heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. “Thank you for the first book I’ve ever owned”. “I sleep with the book you gave me under my pillow and I check every morning and can’t believe it’s still there”. Our kids learned the value of ONE book and giving. 4th & 5th grade kids deliver these to the kids in the inner city every year and some bonds have been forged.

  50. Also gently used backpacks, school supplies and coats were distributed. It’s a great program and was rewarding to both sides.

  51. I completely understand why some of my friends home school.

  52. John Mansfield says:

    Last week Chris Henrichsen linked to a newspaper article indicating that the schools in my old Las Vegas neighborhood (immediately south of Nellis AFB) is not doing well, so I’m feeling a personal connection to this topic, thinking of my successors and wondering how I would fare if I were back among them. The elementary school I attended is in turnaround status, as are the middle school and high school my old house is now zoned for. The high school opened in 2009 and the middle school in 2005, so old, worn out facilities aren’t the problem there. I think school funding has nothing to do with the problems of those schools and their descent from ordinary place without much to brag about other than that they were ours. The condescension of those applying to this issue the differences they’ve observed between expensive private schools and very good public schools is almost amusing. The kind of problems Tracy M’s children experienced are a whole other kind of matter and have nothing to do with the schools themselves; that’s just the place they happen.

  53. Anon for this says:

    John–I have a family member that teaches at an elementary school in that area of Las Vegas right now and has been there for about a decade. There are several problems that affect the schools–funding is OK, but the Clark County district is really too big and covers too much of an area to be effective. The problem of good teachers wanting to ‘move up’ into administration and of administration itself being bloated (and often filled with people with little actual teaching experience) is universal to many school districts. Really, what this person feels most discouraged about is the fact that most behavior and education issues tend to stem from family dysfunction. The recession/housing crisis hit this part of Vegas hard during the last 10 years and families are much more unstable than they used to be. There are many young immigrant families where both parents work long hours at low-paying jobs and don’t have much time for homework or classroom support. Kids who don’t get fed at home or who spend all their time after school watching TV unsupervised because parents are away. Kids who move frequently due to their parents’ job or relationship instability, or who are living in crowded conditions with extended family members. Kids who only speak English at school because everywhere else they can speak Spanish or Tagalog. Every year, this school has more than one kindergartener who comes to school with no knowledge of books, the alphabet, numbers, their name, or even how to hold a pencil. Generally these are kids that have spent the first 5 years of their life with not much simulation–often they have been ‘babysat’ by a relative who does not speak English, is undereducated, and/or mostly ignores them (kids who attend preschool or daycare are almost always better prepared for school). This is not an ‘inner-city’ school by any means nor is it underfunded. Many of the kids have two parents and/or extended family around and most have at least one employed parent–though generally these are low-wage jobs in hospitality or construction. They just have a lot of disruptions in their lives and not a lot of support for education or general child development at home.

  54. When I lived in Las Vegas (1969ish or so, half of NLV wasn’t even built), something that was striking was that many of the schools in the worst shape had the highest budgets — but they vandalism and other problems resulted in their having the worst physical plants.

    It can be rough on kids in such a situation. So much is so terrible.

  55. I disagree Tracy, the problem is not poverty, it is the welfare institution that promotes individuals to do nothing rather than go out and work. I know many who are below the poverty line but would never accept their kid’s behavior if it were anything but the best.

  56. Mythoughts says:

    I hope education can be gained online with large classroom screens. The teacher would still be in class and would augment what the online instructor teaches. Pauses could be made as needed. Replay can be done as needed. Students could replay from home as needed. Textbooks would be online and available to all. Every grade could have the high education of the Education Corridor of Pennsylvania–Connecticut–New Jersey–Ohio. Talented and gifted students could thrive from every socio-economic class. Skyping could be done with students from other countries. Even the poorest schools could have online teaching. We are wasting the easiest and least expensive tool available to bless every child in America.

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