At Risk Students: The Decline of Marriage and the Low Income Student

Summary: The well publicized increase in children borne out of wedlock arguably increases the percentage of low income students in our schools, and therefore students relatively poorly prepared for the middle class norms by which schools operate.

Harry carried around a backpack that looked inside as though a bomb had gone off, an archetype in schools with large numbers of low income kids. To watch him jam an assignment inside, apparently destined for deep oblivion, was to understand in a nutshell why he struggled in his schooling. Classically disorganized and superficially not caring, when confronted around a missing assignment, excuses could tumble from him in a creative tangle, and homework, if begun at all, was seldom completed to any degree satisfying to a teacher or which could be considered to have furthered his understanding of anything. Harry was natively a capable enough kid, and eminently likeable, but he was more immersed in his social network and the entertaining of it than committed to his studies or attentive in class, and seemed to be more mired in the moment than cognizant of any obligation to his own future, though if asked, he would assure one that he intended to go on to college. At least the notion was there.

Ruby Payne is a well known scholar of poverty. She has taken a variety of research on the characteristics of low income and middle class culture, weighed the implications for students of poverty in classrooms set up by middle class norms, and translated them also into descriptions of students that teachers see, daily, in their classrooms. In short, students from low income families as a group exhibit characteristics as a group quite different from middle class kids, and those differences go a long way toward explaining why lower income kids tend to struggle more in school.

My friend Harry, who qualified for lunch subsidies (“federal free or reduced lunch” a marker of a low income student), fit some of the bill Ms. Payne describes. He had never learned to organize his backpack into the sections of notebooks that middle class parents provide as instinctively as the breath they take. Intent on the moment, he too little thought through the ramifications for the immediate future when he would be required to deliver to his teacher a completed work, and demonstrate his knowledge thereof, perhaps because deep down he doubted his own ability to materially affect his future, unlike the middle class student who is more likely to view his work habits as a vehicle to place in life. School and its byways made no sense to him in his world. Harry was more thoroughly embedded in his social network than would be a middle class student who would be more likely to be focused on his or her own future and self sufficiency, and hence more likely attentive in school.

Though the picture is far more complex than this thumbnail sketch, Payne’s work is crucial to an understanding of why low income students like Harry do not succeed within the kinds of middle class cultural norms that our schools reward, despite the readily apparent intellectual capacity to do so.

Payne’s conclusion, one with which I agree, is that schools are the only entity in a position to teach low income students the norms the broader culture rewards. Not only first responders, the only responders.

I would go a step further, and say that it is the professional and practical responsibility of schools to midwife these complex cultural transitions, because if we do not do so, then we will continue to under educate our low income students, and will simply fail to do our job. In today’s nomenclature, our test scores will continue to lag because it is largely our low income students who pull down the mean.

I suspect, by contrast, that the success of the minority of charter schools and others that affect this demographic successfully, do so by facilitating this critical cultural transition, and do so by deploying numbers of adults beyond the norm for that role.

We’ve got to get it right, because this educational demographic appears to be deepening, a consequence of other cultural changes of recent years, which include the increased number of children born to single mothers, often to be raised by one parent. To wit:

The Columnist Kathleen Parker published a piece recently in the Seattle Times (December 17, 2012), “The Middle Class Marriage Deficit” in which she discusses “The State of Our Unions”, a report out of the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values.

According to her column, once upon a time, in the 1980’s, the group of American mothers with high school education, but no college, gave birth to 13% of their babies out of wedlock. By 2010, that percentage had jumped to 44%.

Parker goes on to quote Elizabeth Marquardt, the lead author in the study:

“Researchers are finding that the disappearance of marriage in Middle America is tracking with the disappearance of the middle class in the same communities…..”

Further, she points out, “Marriage fosters small cooperative unions – also known as stable families – that enable children to thrive…”

Clearly with formal marriage on the decline, one cannot assume that all of the three fold increase in marriage out of wedlock for this population has led to a single parent family with one bread winner, because some parents maintain their common law status together, but the statistical decline of membership in the middle class and an associated rise in the numbers of low income folks implicitly argues such is the case in many such instances.

Though the psychological and sociological mechanisms that drive one set of cultural norms for children of low income, and a largely different one for middle class kids probably revolve around the role of financial security, and even responsibility and commitment in our broader culture, for our current purposes children of non marriage unions are much more likely to end up over time imbued with the characteristics my student Harry exhibits, and less those middle class norms that can enhance success not only in school, but in adult life, as well.

These powerful cultural trends around the institutions of marriage, and its relationship to procreation have profound impact on the children who arrive in our classrooms.

While we labor to understand the challenging educational slopes we face at present, it appears the broader culture loads the snow pack still more; the problem deepens even as we trudge our way to remedy.

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