Teachers aren’t the problem
Our schools and politicians are failing poor kids for many reasons--and the current debate ignores them all
By Paul Tough
Where the typical conservative argument on poverty falls short is that it often stops right there: Character matters … and that’s it. There’s not much society can do until poor people shape up and somehow develop better character. In the meantime, the rest of us are off the hook. We can lecture poor people, and we can punish them if they don’t behave the way we tell them to, but that’s where our responsibility ends.
But in fact, this science suggests a very different reality. It says that the character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up. That means the rest of us—society as a whole—can do an enormous amount to influence their development in children. We now know a great deal about what kind of interventions will help children develop those strengths and skills, starting at birth and going all the way through college. Parents are an excellent vehicle for those interventions, but they are not the only vehicle. Transformative help also comes regularly from social workers, teachers, clergy members, pediatricians and neighbors. We can argue about whether those interventions should be provided by the government or nonprofit organizations or religious institutions or a combination of the three. But what we can’t argue anymore is that there’s nothing we can do.
Tough agrees that character matters, but argues that it's not something you change by yourself. It's not like the incredibly trite and overused metaphor of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Rather, it's like the almost-as-overused metaphor of "It takes a village." We need to intervene and shape these kids' environments before they become hard-wired to fail.
For more on the subject, see Indians Suffer Toxic Stress and Poverty Makes People Sick.