I recently read Robert Putnam's OUR KIDS: The American Dream in Crisis. That experience, along with conversations on social media, and John Thompson's latest blog all converged to make me want to rant...again.
OUR KIDS. They're OURS. Every one. The kid who lives in his mother's car, the kid who didn't sleep because he was watching younger siblings. The kid who was brought to school in Mommy's Lexus SUV. The kid who didn't get her homework done. The kid who lashes out at the world. The kid who just wants to disappear and not be noticed. The kid who's in agony that we cannot see. The kid who seems to have it all and is hiding depression. The kid...the kid...the kid.
They are all ours. And until we get that and start acting like it, our kids will suffer.
I'm tired of parents blaming teachers and teachers blaming parents. That does not help our kids. That keeps us from trying to help. When we punish children for the sins and bad luck and bad choices of their parents, we throw them away. When we punish them with unsafe schools, under-resourced, staffed with inexperienced teachers, crowded into classrooms, we throw them away. When we punish those under-resourced, unsafe schools, we assure more kids will be thrown away.
We know books in the home and access to libraries help produce readers. Instead of pointing fingers, we need to do something.
We know healthy kids learn best. Instead of talking about 'those parents' we need to do something.
We know children deserve two parents who are economically able to care for their needs. Instead of arguing about 'welfare moms' and minimum wage jobs, we need to do something.
For our kids. We don't have to like each other, admire each other...care about each other. But we must care for our kids. They did not create the world into which they were born. They didn't choose the economic conditions of their families. They didn't choose the educational attainment of their parents. Those things matter, and they give some kids a huge advantage and others a crippling disadvantage. From the moment of their birth.
No amount of grit or perseverance or bootstrap tugging will help until WE help. Until we assure our kids stability and safety and books and time.
Schools can't do it alone. Churches can't. Community centers can't.
I've been mulling over Putnam's book, and my take-away for days now.
Our kids. Ours. Every. One.
What are we going to do about that?
Rant over...my review follows.
Putnam, Robert D. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. 2015
Not a lot of this information was new...but Putnam put it together, along with stories, in a way that makes the big point: Our kids, all our kids, do not have an equal opportunity for success.
Things are different now...the Horatio Alger, bootstraps, grit and determination, stories do NOT overcome the inequities faced by a growing number of our kids.
Talking of previous generations: "Though it might seem natural to label them 'self-made', in many unnoticed ways they benefited from family and community supports that are nowadays less readily available to kids from...modest backgrounds." This is the point of this book...previous opportunities have disappeared for kids and their families.
There are gaps...but nowhere did Putnam call it an 'achievement' gap. He named the opportunity gap, and the 'savvy gap..." that, being able to find mentors, teachers, chances for yourself. Having those connections that will let you find a good first job, a helping hand...having families who have made those connections for you. Having parents who are not desperately trying to keep their heads above water, who can actually create a network that will benefit their children.
So, opportunity gap...savvy gap...these are the two he names. BUT within the pages, within the stories, are other gaps that doom some of our kids from the start...a health gap, a neighborhood gap, an economic gap, a safety gap. A trust in the authorities gap. In schools, kids from working class parents with less education go to schools with empathy gaps, extracurricular gaps, mentoring gaps, resources gaps.
The suffer from empathy gaps...and ultimately from civic and democracy gaps. They will tend to participate less in civic life than better-educated, more affluent, adults.
Putnam grounds his stories of gaps in his own background: a high school where rich and poor kids attended together. Where networks and connections were forged, and where poor kids were nurtured by the community. Yes, there were families who were not well off, but the community worked. Because it was smaller, because people were not isolated behind gated walls, because we knew each other.
Putnam shows how many of those connections no longer exist. Kids are isolated with people who have similar levels of education and similar economic stability. He shows how the rich are getting richer, better educated...while the poorer see themselves falling farther and farther behind.
“Parental wealth is especially important for social mobility, because it can provide informal insurance that allows kids to take more risks in search of more reward.”
Then Putnam turns to schools. Aren't they supposed to be the great equalizer? Aren't they supposed to give poor kids that resiliency and grit needed to rise above circumstances? That's certainly the rhetoric of our reformers who blame schools for the woes of our society.
Putnam is clear...schools do not create the opportunity gaps, and they cannot, alone, overcome them. "...schools themselves aren't creating the opportunity gap; the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten...and does not grow appreciably as children progress through school."
And there's this: "Among elementary-age children, for example, test score gaps expand faster during the summer, while kids are out of school, and then stabilize when the kids go back to school in the fall." I had never thought of this as evidence that schools are being successful with our most vulnerable kids.
What IS inequitable in schools is availablity of resources, of highly-trained experienced teachers, of higher level courses, and of extracurricular opportunities: clubs, athletics at no cost to students, of art and drama. Affluent parents can afford to pay-for-play. They can afford to give kids trumpet lessons, art lessons. They can afford to take their kids on excursions that have great enrichment potential. The opportunity gap widens, not because of schools, but in spite of us.
Part of the inequity in schools, is what Putnam calls 'residential sorting' -- choosing where to live, if you have the resources, in a neighborhood that has strong schools with enhanced resources...families are becoming more and more isolated from others who are different. Different racially, and more important, different economically. Who among us would NOT want our kids to go to a strong school, with experienced teachers, and strong co-curricular programs? Who among us is capable of choosing those schools and those neighborhoods? The more affluent and more educated.
So that 'achievement gap?" "...the gap is created more by what happens to kids before the get to school, by things that happen outside of school and by what kids bring (or don't bring) with them to school -- some bringing resources and others bringing challenges -- than by what schools do to them."
And, "The American public school today is a kind of echo chamber in whch the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids...what this means is that schools as SITES probably widen the class gap. We've seen evidence that schools as ORGANIZATIONS sometimes modestly contribute to leveling the playing field."
Putnam looked at families, parenting, schools, and communitiesfor signs of how these gaps occurred, and for suggestions. I appreciated his discussion of what could be done by strong, courageous leaders.
To support healthy families, an increase of $3000 in family income during a child's first five years can visibly improve that child's chances...Earned income tax credits, protecting anti-poverty programs can help. Keeping families together by reducing sentencing for people found guilty of non-violent crimes, and rehabilitation programs for those re-entering society.
For schools -- more moeny to schools, more experienced teachers in high-needs schools, longer school hours with enrichment activities for kids. Social and health services at schools -- that community, wrap-around model! He suggests vigorous vo-ed programs and workplace training programs. I highly support these suggestions. He acknowledges that community charters can be part of a solution as well.
Communities have a responsibility as well. Mentoring programs ("our data on mentoring today sho amassive class differences in access to mentors), support of extra curriculum programs that might not be offered in the schools--these all can support kids. Neighborhood regeneration programs can help with the safety gap for kids as well. Putnam suggested if readers want to do something immediately, they should contact schools and ask if a donation to offset 'play for pay' programs would be helpful. Just offering to pay for a student's fees for extracurricular activities can support that kiddo thrive.
I love the title: OUR KIDS. If we don't start claiming every child as our own, these gaps will continue...we will lose a generation or more of young people who will not have the skills and tools to parent and to thrive in the society that appears to be turning its back on the undereducated and the working poor.
Putnam and his research teams reached out to families of different ethnicities to highlight the fact the inequity is now more economic and educational...of course racial divides will continue. But we must find ways to help these kids whose parents didn't have opportunities to higher education, to better jobs, to better neighborhoods, to that 'savvy' one needs to navigate in today's society.
I found Putnam's discussion of schools to be even-handed and without blame. That was refreshing. I found his suggestions to be doable. The devil's in the details, but I have long screamed for community, wrap-around schools. I'm watching with interest as more schools begin to move in that direction.
OUR KIDS deserve OUR BEST. They deserve opportunities and safe communities and experienced teachers and supportive communities. And access to higher education, whatever their parents' attainment might be.
Are we willing to help bridge all these gaps that hinder our kids?
Are we ready to look beyond their parents' mistakes and reach out? I certainly hope so.