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 Two recent studies, one issued by the <a target="_blank" href="http://www.nwea.org/">Northwest Evaluation Association</a>, show that the <a target="_blank" href="http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/20/education/20gap.html?hp&ex=1164085200&en=50afd2f22c6d95fa&ei=5094&partner=homepage">“achievement gap” between white and minority children is not narrowing</a>, despite Bush’s <a target="_blank" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Child_Left_Behind_Act">No Child Left Behind </a>law (often mocked as “Every Child Left Behind“), which was intended to close the achievement gap by 2014.  Now, why is this?

No Child Left Behind is, overall, not a bad piece of legislation.  Keep in mind that the NCLB bill was not simply Bush’s bill.  NCLB was a truly bipartisan effort, co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy, that was partly intended to update and expand the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, something that desperately needed to be done.

The basic provisions of NCLB require the states and school districts to hire highly-qualified teachers, fully-certified in their subject areas; develop more stringent standards for teacher certification in general; and implement standardized testing across the board.  In order to receive continued federal funding, schools must be 100% staffed with certified teachers and must make adequate yearly progress in raising test scores, particularly in relation to the achievement gap.  If they don’t do this, then the states must monitor them more closely and sometimes intervene to remedy the situation. 

So, what’s wrong with this?  Well, first, many education professionals and parents object to standardized tests because they consider them culturally-biased, and they force teachers to “teach to the test” in order to preserve their school’s standing and, in turn, their jobs.  And many don’t believe that “teaching to the test” makes kids any smarter.  They would prefer more subjective, qualitative forms of assessment and broader, sometimes more culture-specific curriculum.  Also, the tests differ slightly from state to state, and some are easier than others and rely more on rote info than critical thinking skills.

Standardized testing is only one indicator of progress and generally should be viewed as such, but it shouldn’t be discarded.  Used in combination with other forms of assessment, such as portfolio review, overall GPA, projects and individual achievements, results on college admissions tests, etc., it can provide a pretty good picture of student knowledge and skill attainment.  One hopes that individual teachers and school districts are not relying solely on standardized test results when they teach and evaluate their students.  One hopes that they are treating them as individuals, with individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles.  For the purpose of school assessment at the state and especially federal level, however, it is nearly impossible to gauge progress based on criteria that widely differs from state to state and school to school.  A consistent and more objective measure is needed.  The basic premise behind standardized testing is a sound one—apply a uniform quantitative measure that can easily be used at the state and federal level to analyze trends.  Standardized testing alone is not a 100% accurate measure of student progress, but it is a pretty good one. 

Are the tests culturally-biased, favoring European-Americans and their learning styles?  Is it true that culture plays a significant role in shaping how we process and demonstrate knowledge?  For sure.  But standardizing the basic skills needed to acquire and demonstrate knowledge in a diverse society is one function of education, in my opinion.  And, if started in preschool, it actually levels the playing field.  A properly developed standardized test is not about rote teaching or putting kids in little boxes so they all come out the same.  It’s about teaching everyone the same reasoning, critical thinking, computational, and language skills that we all need to communicate in the modern world and to accomplish our own particular objectives, whether that is to be a CEO, a dairy farmer, or a social worker.  “Teaching to the test” needn’t and shouldn’t be primarily about teaching students the specific content that it is expected will be on the tests (but it often is).  It should be about teaching them the basic skills necessary to deal with any age-appropriate content that is put in front of them.  And that’s damned hard work.

What’s really wrong with standardized testing?  It’s used to penalize the neediest and most disadvantaged schools by linking funding with progress.  While underperforming schools generally receive the lion’s share of state and federal subsidies, they often receive the least local funding and private support, due to an impoverished tax base.  Federal and state funds hardly make up for that.  So the schools with the greatest need often have the least amount of money.  How can they recruit “highly-qualified” teachers and diminish class sizes so that students get individual attention?  Something that will never happen should happen—local tax dollars dedicated to schools should be put in a state pot and redistributed equitably.

The big problem with NCLB is that it is an unfunded, or under funded, mandate.  It raises the bar for school achievement and teacher quality without proportionally raising education funding.  The billions that are being poured into Iraq plus the trillions that are being poured into the defense budget dwarf both the K-12 and higher education budget.  The shortsightedness of these priorities is remarkable.

Another problem with NCLB is that it puts the entire onus for closing the achievement gap on the schools and disregards the numerous socio-economic factors that contribute to it, expecting teachers to compensate for all of them.  Poverty is the best indicator for poor school performance, not color, so if more Black, Hispanic, and Native-American kids, relative to whites, live in poverty, then they are less likely to do well in school.

Teachers cannot be expected to compensate for the deficits that might occur when a single parent, who never received a proper education him or herself, must work 10-12 hours a day, sometimes at minimum wage, to make ends meet.  Such parents, due to various complex socio-economic factors, seldom have books, magazines, or newspapers in their homes; seldom if ever read to their kids; don’t take them to cultural events and activities; can’t travel with them; and often use the TV or the Nintendo as a baby sitter.  Sometimes, they don’t have high expectations for their kids, and that message gets through.  They often don’t have the time, energy, and/or knowledge to help their kids with their homework.  They don’t have the knowledge and experience to guide their children in college and career decisions.  In short, they often cannot provide a context for what their children are learning in school.  Many poor kids go to school on an empty stomach. 

This all seems obvious to me, but it is almost never mentioned when discussing the achievement gap.  It is the 800 pound gorilla in the room, in my opinion.  Somehow, the teacher, who sometimes works 10-12 hours a day for 40 or 50 thousand a year, is supposed to make up for the enormous deficits that these kids bring to school with them.  Middle and high school teachers are expected to instill a love of reading in the heart of a child who has grown up in a home without books and has never had anyone read to him.  This is simply too much to ask in many cases.

The best way to tackle these problems is through Head Start and similar preschool programs that get all kids on the same positive track from day one.  But despite the overwhelming success of such programs, they remain perennially under funded.  Raising the minimum wage so that it keeps pace with inflation would also help, as would finding ways to lift the lower classes out of poverty rather than keep them cycling in it through limited or no access to credit, car loans, insurance, mortgages, and reasonably-priced services.  Someone in the US needs to take a hint from Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus who helped lift perhaps millions of people out of poverty by offering them capital (<a target="_blank" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microcredit">micro-credit</a>) to start businesses and change their lives.  And if you want to close the achievement gap that, I believe, is one place to start.

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Thanks to Chuck Schumer for introducing legislation that would reign in the predatory “Rent-to-Own” business, which contributes to the cycle of poverty by leasing products for as much as three times their market value to consumers unable to pay in full or unable to obtain credit. I wonder if he read that Brookings Institute Report that I wrote about last week.

In essence, customers are paying huge interest on items that they don’t technically own and that could be immediately repossessed, even if they miss their last payment. “Leasing” the items, rather than selling them on credit, allows Rent-A-Centers to skirt state usury laws that limit interest to 30%. It also allows these predators to easily repossess items even if they’re almost entirely paid off. Contract terms are not always fully disclosed or easily accessible, which makes those with the least consumer education vulnerable to what is essentially fraud. If consumers understood that they were paying as much as 200% interest to buy that washing machine that they need, they might decide, instead, to continue using the laundromat.

These rent-to-own scams hurt cash-strapped consumers tremendously because they dig themselves into a deeper hole, one that they sometimes can’t get out of and that they pass on to their children and grandchildren. The perpetuation of poverty hurts the whole economy.

It’s really rather sad to think that a single mother, for example, who only wants to see her child have a computer for his schoolwork, might have to work two jobs in order to pay off this and similar kinds of debts. Sure, she should pay interest, but 200%? That is the worst kind of exploitation. The greed of this industry is unfathomable.


Digg!

The Brookings Institute, a pretty centrist think-tank, has published a report outlining one more way that the poor are kept poor—by being nickeled and dimed to death and by paying much more for services and products than those who can actually afford to pay more for services and products. What better system for perpetuating the status quo?

These additional charges are, ostensibly, a way for profit making enterprises to absorb the additional risk and higher cost of transacting business in poor neighborhoods and/or with those with low incomes and credit ratings (I always thought that a certain amount of loss was part of the “cost of doing business”). But, as the report very wisely points out:

“. . . the existence of these higher costs will also drive perceptions of higher costs, even when there may not be data available to support those perceptions. This also drives up prices.”

Many businesses, “unscrupulous” as they’re called in the report, prey upon the poor and charge them a premium for services that they can’t get elsewhere—they maximize their profit and put food on their own tables by taking food off the tables of others—and this is exactly what it comes down to. They need to be regulated or outlawed, but that won’t happen any time soon.

The poor are robbed by:

1. Check-cashing services
2. Payday and short-term loan services
3. Pawnshops
4. High-interest, high fee, high penalty credit cards
5. High interest, high fee, high penalty loans
6. High interest auto loans
7. High interest mortgages
8. Used car dealers who are more likely to sell them “lemons”
9. High-priced convenience stores, which also offer some of the above services, used because there are no neighborhood supermarkets.
10. Rent-to-own furniture and appliance stores, which proliferate in poor neighborhoods, as do pawnshops and check-cashing outlets

Add to this, higher auto insurance rates, regardless of driving record, and higher medical expenses because of poor or no health plan and you really have a self-perpetuating condition.

The high cost of being poor was also written about in the book Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.

The Brookings report argues that outlawing and regulating such businesses will actually help the economy because it will allow the poor to acquire ”income-growing assets” [surprise conclusion!].


Digg!

The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center is counting on the Federal Minimum Wage Increase as a “wedge issue” for the Democrats. Research shows that there is widespread popular support for a federal increase, although most Republicans oppose it. They’re calling it a “hot-button issue.” They say:

As more national activists on the Right and Left begin to utilize the initiative process as a strategic tool for electoral gain, ballot measures lose more of their local flavor and become homogenized across the country. This environment makes an analysis of the top trends even more important . . . 2004 survey research shows that the popularity of the minimum wage provides progressives with an excellent strategy to rebound from the conservative domination of ballot measures. The minimum wage initiatives in Nevada and Florida were particularly motivating to younger women, new registrants, non-college women, Democratic men, low-income voters, and independent voters in
Nevada. These are voters who are often fairly difficult to mobilize.

It’s certainly an important issue, but is it a hot button issue? While most people are sympathetic to low-paid workers and the impossibility of getting by on such a low wage, unless they own a business that employs a lot of minimum wage workers, it costs them nothing to support it. So why not? But how strongly do they feel about it? Abortion rights and gay marriage are emotional issues that speak to people’s fundamental ideas about what is right and what is wrong. Attitudes about sexual behavior are deeply instilled in most people and are often tied to their religious beliefs; in other words, they are core values. Unless Democrats can find an issue with similar emotional impact, they will not succeed in the “wedge issue” game. Stem cell research is a possibility if it can be adequately explained and defended. Rather than seeking wedge issues, however, the Democrats need to stop using caution and must aggressively attack Republican failings. They must offer a true alternative, not more of the same.

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