Are We Creating Mental Poverty In Schools?

By: James Pearce

When compulsory education began, the rationale was that education could provide training for the next level. Literacy became a key pursuit and our schools manufactured workers who were skilled and literate. There were no barriers: everyone could attend school regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class. Then came today’s society and its raiders of reason. Our society and its polar political parties are creating mental poverty in schools. This is dangerous for all of us.

Danger lies in changing what we know before we know what we know. I give the Republican Party some credit for their attempts at setting a higher bar. When “No Child Left Behind” was enacted, the motive was to ask our nation’s students to step up and reach higher standards. It did look like a great approach at first, didn’t it? Give students a higher bar and lead them along and they’ll jump it with proper instruction. What we’ve discovered since then is that these high stakes requirements and tests simply don’t work. We have ignored the impact of family and the role poverty plays in the lives of students who consistently underperform our system.

Geoffrey Canada took on the challenge in Harlem of raising the bar for underperforming impoverished students and set up a system that attempted to change a student’s total atmosphere. If you haven’t read the book chronicling Canada’s efforts, you should. It’s an incredible record of what was tried and how long it took to work. Author Paul Tough recorded Canada’s events in Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. Canada and his colleagues found that it was impossible to move improvement along until they changed the family environment. This helped, but the process took several years and it still left many students “behind” the expectations. Only when Canada’s group began working with families and children at the preschool level did they see great results and these results took years to obtain.

Somewhere in our thinking, new wisdom says privatize education. Privatization is a Republican Party endeavor. This is what Republicans do. They privatize and monetize everything they can to pursue wealth. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has been struggling to maintain their base and to ensure educational safety for their constituent student populations. The populations of Republican-dominated and Democrat-dominated districts are vastly different in income and often vary in racial and ethnic background. The problem is that students aren’t yet affiliated with a particular party. Their parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, and neighbors have established affiliations. Plus, in reality, it doesn’t matter what the affiliation is. A student is a student and an American is an American. The brain is the same inside the head and separations by any other means are counterproductive.

Now that we are clear on my view that a brain is a brain no matter what kind or color of head it is stored and maintained in, let’s go back my points. There are many brains living in students who go home to unheated shelters, are fed infrequently if at all, and have no environment to study and learn in. It is these students I am concerned about. Our political system is on its way to creating an entire system of haves and have nots. If we recall the political movements in other countries where haves and have nots have been established, the results have not been pleasing. Let us recall South Africa’s apartheid and the massive separations this created. Our political parties are quite polarized. They cannot agree on anything in Congress and it doesn’t appear that either party has offered solutions to any of our current issues. We are in a quagmire, that is certain.

Privatization in schools (or charter schools as others call this) takes time to develop and achieve results. I am not against reforming schools. There are definitely areas of improvement needed. However, I don’t believe that hacking away at teachers and blaming them for the lack of performance is needed. I am a teacher and have been for fourteen years. Every day I think about other careers I might like to go into (and I like my current job)! Can we really wait five to ten years for results of privatization and perhaps find that this great, Republican-planned experiment simply didn’t work and that we are in a worse hole than before? Would it make sense for a business to suddenly fire all its workers and start over with all new people all at once? Does it make sense for a business to completely change its structure to try an unproven plan of action? Yet, these things are happening now in our schools. Our schools have the structure and they have talented employees who by the way work for 15%+ less wages for their educational level than people in the “business world” with the same level of education.

If we don’t properly fund our current schools where we already have a structure and a base, if we hit the reset button instead, we’ll all face poor economic conditions before long. Where do you think our population of business workers learned their skills? In public schools. We’ve already been educating people. Our policies and laws are on the way to creating mental poverty. Mental poverty is when a student with a brain, with ability, has resources removed from from her school and faces an education that doesn’t prepare her. Mental poverty is created when that young woman goes to her designated middle school that has been taken over by the government and called a charter school with no greater pursuit of high-level learning than was in place before. Mental poverty is when the young woman is in a poor, underfunded minority high school where she can’t take advanced classes while her white counterparts attend a well-funded school and prepare for college with advanced-level classes. She doesn’t make it to college; her white counterparts do. Same brains, same ability, different locations. Three years after high school, we knock on the door of a broken down home in a high crime area of town. A young pregnant woman answers the door holding the hand of a two-year old. Inside her head is an Ivy League brain, another brain of the same ability stands next to her, and another grows inside her. None will ever make it to college.

James Pearce is a talented writer, markets analyst, and speaker. To secure his services or obtain rates, email:

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