A lot of factors can help make a student more “successfully” educated:

  • They have parents that are supportive of their education.
  • They have parents that have high expectations of their children and stress a hard work ethic.
  • They have a solid home-life that leaves them relatively unscarred emotionally so that they are able to focus on education instead of using schools for attention they don’t get at home.
  • They are fluent in the language that school is being taught in (English, in America).
  • They have financial resources to buy supplies, get to school on time, have food in their stomachs, and participate in extra-curricular activities that allow them to get into colleges.
  • They have financial resources to pay for tutoring or preparation materials for standardized tests that increase their likelihood of going to a good college.
  • Their genetics make them more pre-disposed to like learning and be able to focus in school.
  • The school that they can afford to go to has quality teachers, small-enough class sizes, etc. (They can go to a “good” school)
This list obviously isn’t exclusive. There are tons of things that factor into whether a child is well-educated by the time they become an adult. However, these aspects are often things that a lot of people, progressives especially, claim to be the reason for a gap in human capital today between the rich and the poor. Better-educated people that usually go on to make more money are only the way they are because they are able to fulfill the characteristics above. I don’t doubt that all of this is true. I don’t think I would have turned out like I have if it wasn’t for parents that had high expectations for me, could financially support my endeavors, and send me to high-quality schools.

So I’ve realized that a lot of the kids I teach at my middle school don’t have these things. And this fact seems to be (perhaps rightly so) a scapegoat for many of the kids’ educational shortcomings. How can you expect Kid A to do well when he can’t even understand the directions because Spanish is his first language? Or his parents don’t care enough to register him for a charter school or magnet school? Or he doesn’t have money to wear a coat in the cold? Or he’s beaten at home by an alcoholic father so he obviously finds it hard to concentrate? Or so many of his relatives are poor and/or in gangs that he finds it impossible to see a future at all?

But all of these problems seemed to have been dumped on schools. More than that, I think progressives are convinced the welfare state can successfully replace everything that Kid A is lacking compared to his more privileged peers. No food in his stomach? Dederally-provided free lunch. That makes sense. But English proficiency of a five year old, essentially? Should schools really be dumped with that burden? An alcoholic parent that beats them? Doesn’t really care about them (I have had more than one of my students tell me that they think no one cares about them – “my mom just cares about work and her boyfriend”)? Deep emotional issues related to family life?

Some of these things maybe can be solved by more funding. Lunch and breakfast. Perhaps better language training is possible, too. The language training is such a tremendous effort – I’m going to have to sympathize with anti-immigration folks here and say that it maybe really places an undue burden on the system if foreigners expect to come to America and have our public education system (which I see as a huge extension of the welfare state) be the ones to assimilate them and teach them English.

Moreso, I guess I was thinking of how family life affects a child’s education. By no means do all of the students I work with have terrible family lives. A significant number have very engaged parents that really are invested in their child’s future. However, kids in my school definitely disproportionately have a lacking home life. But should we be surprised then that these kids aren’t as successful? I’m not saying we should throw them into the wind and that’s all. But so much of education policy is focused on those kids who have negligent parents. Is the welfare state really in a position to replace hard-working, invested parents?

One common objection against charter schools is that only students with really interested parents will reap the benefits. Another against school competition is that only the kids who have invested parents will even apply for transportation vouchers that enable them to go across the city to a better school. I don’t doubt that these are true and, in fact, there is empirical evidence to support these ideas.
But what are we to do? When we talk about “equal opportunity” are we really hoping that the welfare state can, through essentially monetary funding, replace good parents? The parent who sets an example by waking up early every morning to get to work even if they don’t want to because that’s what adults have to do in the real world, the family who will go to the band concerts and basketball games. Do we really expect enough finagling in education policy to be able to replace these things? I sure don’t.

Again, I’m not saying to throw these kids into the wind. But the idea of “equal opportunity” and equalizing all of the factors that go into the quality of a child’s education seems to be a much too ambitious task to overcome. And unfortunately, almost all of this responsibility is being placed on our public education system. I sort of just thought about this on the bus ride home today so I’m willing to say that my opinion might change and/or that I’m open to any criticisms.