Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Throwing Good Money After Bad Parents

For years, New York's unique tier of stratospherically-rich denizens has tried to do a very good thing.

They've tried to educate the city's vast population of woefully impoverished schoolchildren.

It's been said that the best place to panhandle in Manhattan is just outside the New York Stock Exchange after the trading floor closes. Then, hundreds of stock brokers leave for the evening, shackled with guilt over how they've bet against their fellow human beings that day. Their angst compels them to try and buy some peace of mind at the hands of the city's down-and-out. At least, that's the story. And it's not hard to imagine that a charitable cocktail of altruism tinged with remorse isn't a soothing elixir for Wall Street's less noble players.

But some businesspeople and corporate titans have far more practical motivations for their largess. If New York City can't graduate its own kids with a savvy mastery of basic life skills, where are the city's many companies going to find the workers they'll need tomorrow, next year, or in ten years? Sure, periods of high unemployment cycle through the towers of Manhattan like they do everyplace else, and corporate belt-tightening means that fewer people do more work than ever before. But there isn't a corporation yet that has gone entirely virtual.

One of the Big Apple's best assets has historically been it large, well-educated, and industrious workforce. But, like has happened in all major urban centers in the United States, that supply of prepared workers has been evaporating during the past several decades. It's a phenomenon that could decimate our national productivity if left unchecked, because we're talking about millions of kids matriculating through their high school years with little marketable knowledge and even less intelligence to show for it.

Yet Another Big Idea Grows in Harlem

Sometimes, the aid lavished upon New York's "least of these" by those who've made their fortunes downtown has proven be worth it, perhaps not in sheer volume, but at least in the brilliance of graduates who go on to leave poverty behind. But the very fact that institutionalized poverty continues to grind away at the core of urban America proves that inner-city education initiatives have yet to meet the full-scale challenge of producing educated kids.

It's in view of this bleak backdrop that I've read an account in the New York Times today about yet another chic Harlem-based great-intentions program designed to salvage some of the city's poorest kids from the clutches of poverty. The brainchild of Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children's Zone consists of two charter schools featuring ultra-low student-teacher ratios paid for by a privileged roster of wealthy New York benefactors, including two billionaires.

It's enough to make your heart swell up with admiration, as long as you don't read too far ahead in the Times' article. For in describing Canada's intentions for his program, reporter Sharon Otterman unintentionally reveals why, ultimately, Harlem Children's Zone won't work:

"Mr. Canada, 58, who began putting his ideas into practice on a single block, on West 119th Street, in the mid-1990s, does not apologize for the cost of his model, saying his goals are wider than just fixing a school or two. His hope is to prove that if money is spent in a concentrated way to give poor children the things middle-class children take for granted — like high-quality schooling, a safe neighborhood, parents who read to them, and good medical care — they will not pass on the patterns of poverty to another generation.

"'You could, in theory, figure out a less costly way of working with a small number of kids, and providing them with an education,” Mr. Canada said. “But that is not what we are attempting to do. We are attempting to save a community and its kids all at the same time.'"

Wow - did you catch that? Canada isn't so much interested in actually providing an education as he is negating the role that parents should be playing in the nurture and development of their children.

Parents Remain the Key

Now, maybe Canada himself hasn't realized that yet, but chances are, he knows he's operating with a view towards treating education as a supplanter of the family. Because we've all known for years that the problem with urban education isn't so much the quality of the teachers, the physical condition of the classrooms, or even the availability of current technologies, but the involvement of parents in the instructional development of their own children.

Yes, some suburban kids from dysfunctional parents fail at school. But some urban kids with loving parents who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods manage to succeed brilliantly. Do safe streets, clean schools, plenty of computers, dedicated teachers, and compelling curriculum help kids learn better? Of course they do. But the fact that kids can learn well without these tools, and that even with the tools they can fail, the lesson seems perfectly stark: you need the parents!

Now, at this point, readers of this blog who either homeschool their kids and/or were homeschooled themselves are saying to their computer monitors: "Homeschooling frees you from the institutionalization of education so you don't have to worry about all of this!"

But even the most ardent supporter of homeschooling must admit that not every family can homeschool. We need to all agree that public school is here to stay, and that even if you choose not to use it, you're still paying taxes to fund it. So we should all want it to work well for the kids who, for whatever reason, get their education there.

Yet I have to concede to the homeschoolers one of their most cherished assertions: educational success significantly depends on the parents. And in his Harlem Children's Zone model, Canada is trying to defy that proven fact. Sure, he's got small class sizes and he strives to employ only the most student-focused teachers. Sure, he's dealing with a discouraging cohort of kids whose parents will not play a significant factor in their education - indeed, they may act as a significant disruption in their education. Some would come to Canada's defense, saying he's trying to make the best of a really bad situation. And all of this is accurate.

But he's just plugging a hole in the poverty dike with his index finger, isn't he?

Without a viable model for integrating parents - however poor or uneducated they may be themselves - into the time-consuming, emotionally-intensive, self-denying, long-term investment of their children, the quality of that child's education will only serve as a reflection of how well you've been able to mask the child's intuitive sense of parental disconnect, and what that really means: that their parents really don't love them.

All You Need Is...

There. I've said it. The "L" word.

Liberals have danced around it for generations. It's not politically correct to question the quality of parenting in ghettos. And yes, dysfunctional urban parents exhibit the same callousness towards their children as dysfunctional suburban ones. But until parents who blame everything else for their problems to avoid confronting their own narcissism proactively insert themselves into the educational process of their children, public education as we know it - particularly in impoverished communities - will continue to unravel.

And if Canada and his patrons actually love these kids more than their own parents do - which, judging by the effort, time, and money they're expending, may be the case - there still aren't enough people like them to go around for all of the kids whose parents are AWOL, either emotionally, physically, or both.

Indeed, sometimes, it's not even about money.

Generally speaking the parent who lives to work and hardly ever carves out enough time to check homework, attend parent-teacher meetings, quiz their child on multiplication tables and vocabulary words, and marvel at baking-soda science projects will most likely end up with the same type of kid whose parents slept with different partners every other night, used drugs, participated in domestic violence, was in jail, or got shot robbing a liquor store. Maybe your kid will turn out to be a well-adjusted genius anyway, but most likely, they won't.

They'll be just like you. Because that's what you taught them.

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