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One day last year my very wealthy and very conservative relatives from New York came to visit us in California. While I was recounting the travails of my first year teaching experience to them over lox spread and crackers, my uncle remarked that it must be very difficult to teach in a “culture” of a low socioeconomic student population. Something about his comment irked me.

Perhaps I took offense because he was implicitly accusing my students (and their families) for their own failure to achieve academically. To blame the “culture” is actually directly attacking the families and community – the creators of culture – for their students’ lack of educational attainment. I, like any good liberal leaning, university grad, take issue with this as I have come to think of my students’ failures as a fault of society and its failure to rectify racial and economic inequalities in the system. Sure, if my community had the wealth and resources of a pseudo public school system like that of the Acalanes School district, wouldn’t my students rise along with them?

It’s no secret that socio-economically disadvantaged students are getting shortchanged in their education in this country. According to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, researchers found that “public schools serving greater numbers of disadvantaged students receive fewer economic resources than schools with more affluent students”. This is old news (literally, this was published in 2000), for we all know that the current system continues to dole out fatty benefits to the wealthy and the powerful while leaving the poor and minorities to eat the crumbs off the table. It’s a sad, old tale of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

However, the report doesn’t stop there. Researchers found that pouring more money into public school districts that serve the poor doesn’t automatically create higher test scores.

The single most contributing factor to student achievement is, well, the students themselves. According to the report, the single greatest predictor of high test scores is the socioeconomic status of its student population. You can read the specifics in the report.

Essentially what the report is saying is that money is not the magic wand that evens the playing field. I hate to admit it, but in a way my rich uncle is right. While the unequal distribution of public funds certainly exacerbates  the already low achievement of poor communities, we must realize that, even with an equal distribution of resources, the community’s students will not magically produce high achieving students. The community’s culture needs to undergo painful change in order for its children to actually have a chance at reaching the levels of educational attainment of their affluent peers.

Upper/upper-middle class culture – the habits and values that arise from moneyed communities – inculcates a different set of codes into their children that allows them to achieve more than their poorer peers. This much is obvious, but, if this is the single most important factor in achieving academic success, then perhaps we need to reevaluate where we allocate our funds. Simply spending more money on teacher education, school programs, or classroom size reduction does not an academic culture make.

Then again, as a newb teacher in my second year at a low SES school, I don’t know what one can do to fight against a culture of mediocrity. Finding enough money for each student is one kind of battle, but the war against deep seeded values is another. Any thoughts?

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