Last week I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by Dr. P.L. Thomas, an Associate Professor at Furman University and author of Ignoring Poverty In the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education. Dr. Thomas had much to say about the problems that childhood poverty causes in the United States in regards to education. For example, while many European countries that we compare ourselves to with the almighty test score have childhood poverty rates below 10%, the United States has a poverty rate of over 23%. That’s right, 23% of our children live in poverty. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to Finland 5%, the U.K. 12% or Japan 14%, because we are closer to the industrialized powerhouses of Latvia 19% and Romania 25%.
According to Dr. Thomas:
“The central problems we are facing in schools are historical patterns (emphasis in original) – student achievement being strongly correlated with out-of school factors, such as poverty; disproportionate drop-out rates among marginalized populations of students; and inequity of teacher assignments to the disadvantage of students living in poverty, students of color, and English Language Learners.” (p. 5)
Indeed, research has found that the most important factor in student achievement is individual or family background (Sawchuck, 2011), and that the actual influence a teacher has on student outcomes is only about 13-17% (Hanushek, 2010). These are important points that we will refer to in future EduSanity postings, but for now it is important to note that when students live in poverty, the statistics say that they are almost certainly going to struggle in school.
Many people, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, see public education as “the great equalizer”, or the path out of poverty. The belief is that by forcing schools to hold these poor children to higher academic standards, we will drag them from the depths of their impoverished lives and send them off to a better middle class existence. This is a convenient position because thinking about the poverty problem in reverse would be too problematic. Rather than doing something to solve the poverty problem in this country (as the other leading industrialized nations listed above have done), we instead point the accountability cannon at the schools. In effect, we are telling our nation’s teachers that they are responsible for solving the poverty problem all by themselves. And when they fail, which the numbers tell us they almost certainly will in many cases, we will say that they are not dedicated enough or that the standards they teach are not rigorous enough. Myopia.
And then there’s this. My EduSanity colleague enjoys sending me links to articles that will rile me up. He is quite good at it, but a link he sent me on Sunday was so disturbing it literally took me a full 24 hours before I could finish the article and another 24 before I could write an EduSanity post that wasn’t going to be laced with the four-letter words that came to mind immediately after I read it for the first time.
A recent story in the New York Times tells the story of Dr. Michael Anderson of Cherokee County, Georgia, a place in America that suffers a great deal from the poverty problem discussed earlier. Dr. Anderson has decided that since schools either don’t have the resources or desire to do what it takes to help poor kids succeed, he must take it upon himself to prescribe stimulants such as Adderall normally used in treatment of ADHD to students simply because they are poor and are not achieving in school.
From the article:
“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”
We have sunk to an entirely new low America. We have reached the point where we are actually medicating perfectly healthy poor children in order to help them overcome the poverty that we stubbornly refuse to admit is the problem behind educational achievement despite the overwhelming evidence that shows educational outcomes are strongly connected to socio-economic status.
Wait, it gets better (worse). Also from the article:
Dr. Anderson’s instinct, he said, is that of a “social justice thinker” who is “evening the scales a little bit.” He said that the children he sees with academic problems are essentially “mismatched with their environment” — square pegs chafing the round holes of public education. Because their families can rarely afford behavior-based therapies like tutoring and family counseling, he said, medication becomes the most reliable and pragmatic way to redirect the student toward success.
You can stop looking Secretary Duncan because we have found our new American hero. Dr. Anderson, or should we call him SOCIAL JUSTICE MAN (movie to be optioned soon) has bravely stepped in with his prescription pad where an entire nation of teachers has failed. Hopefully, with SOCIAL JUSTICE MAN’s leadership we can find a way to medicate all of the poor kiddos in this country so that we can stop handing out waivers for NCLB. Teachers here in Arkansas will no longer have to drop baggies full of cereal in their students’ backpacks on Friday afternoon so they will have something to eat over the weekend. They will no longer have to find a way to raise the almighty test scores of children who live in cars. Think of it, a full quarter of American kids can simply pop a pill and make their poverty problems go away while they are at school.
But Dr. Anderson does have standards.
“People who are getting A’s and B’s, I won’t give it to them,” he said.
Finally, we educators have somebody who is respectable enough to decide who needs help in this country. Medical doctors go to school for a long time and they make a lot of money. We should listen to them. I also went to school for a long time but I don’t make a lot of money. In fact I probably owe as much money in student loans to the federal government as Dr. Anderson makes in a few months pushing pills to healthy children. Obviously, “experts” like me and our “experience educating children” should be ignored in favor of those who really know what they are talking about.
Ironically, Dr. Anderson has found a way to force you and I to address the problem of poverty in the United States with our own money. That’s because many of these parents whose children are being medicated by SOCIAL JUSTICE MAN can rest easy knowing that Medicaid covers almost all of the costs involved with paying Dr. Anderson and for the medication itself. That’s right kindhearted American citizen, pat yourself on the back because your tax dollars are financing Dr. Anderson’s medical solution to poverty.
And the kids are grateful:
“My kids don’t want to take it, but I told them, ‘These are your grades when you’re taking it, this is when you don’t,’ and they understood,” Ms. Williams said, noting that Medicaid covers almost every penny of her doctor and prescription costs.
Why wouldn’t they want to take unnecessary prescription stimulants in order to get better grades? The possible side effects only include growth suppression, increased blood pressure and, in rare cases, psychotic episodes. These ADHD medications are classified as Schedule II drugs because they are highly addictive. Other Schedule II drugs include Oxycontin, Morphine, Methamphetamines, and Percoset. But don’t worry, it is perfectly legal for a doctor to prescribe medications on a trial basis, and there’s no way that putting a kid on these drugs and then taking them off would have any detrimental effect. Plus, now we get to add “doesn’t get high enough test scores because he/she is poor” to the list of symptoms. Justice!
Don’t mistake my sarcastic rant as an argument against the prescribing of medication for students who have legitimate cases of ADHD. As a former middle school teacher I saw the enormous difference that medication can make when properly prescribed for students who truly need it, and when the medication’s effects on the child’s overall wellbeing are evaluated closely. I’m not a medical doctor, but I do believe that ADHD is a legitimate diagnosis, which ironically Dr. Anderson does not.
The bottom line is that some of us have flat out lost our minds when it comes to solving the achievement problem for students of poverty in this nation. Unfortunately, as long as we continue to think about the problem as being educational rather than societal, idiotic solutions like Dr. Anderson’s and Secretary Duncan’s will be the best we can do.
Endacott, J. L. (2012, October 23). Social justice man is here!. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/10/23/social-justice-man-is-here/
Hanushek, E. (2010, December). The economic value of higher teacher quality. Working paper 56. Washington, DC: Calder, The Urban Institute
Sawchuck , S. (2011). EWA research brief: What studies say about teacher effectiveness. Washington DC: Education Writers Association. Retrieved October 22, 2012, from http://www.ewa.org/site/PageServer?pagename=briefs_effectiveness