I am struck by the huge amount of research that shows that the school kids attend has no effect on whether a kid gets out of poverty.
We are basically living in a caste system in the US, deluding ourselves that education enables social mobility. Kids whose parents are middle class grow up to be middle class. Rich kids grow up to be rich. And our schools reinforce those outcomes because our school districts remain segregated. But not by race—by economic and social class.
Recently I’ve read three really interesting pieces of research that show what does make a difference to a kid’s social mobility. Here they are:
1. Tell kids they’re smart.
For the most part, my parents were terrible parents. So I was removed from their house. But one positive thing they did is telling us kids we were smart. In fact, in the 1970s they refused to allow me to take fifth-grade standardized tests. “We already know she’s smart,” my parents wrote in a note to the teacher.
That experience stayed with me my whole life. Even through periods of self-hatred and self-sabotage, I never once doubted that I was smart.
Florida schools did a study on how to better identify gifted kids. They found that when teachers recommend kids for IQ testing, black and hispanic kids are chosen less frequently than white kids. No surprise there—just as it’s no surprise that when all kids are tested for IQ, more black and hispanic kids are placed in gifted programs.
Here’s what is surprising: Getting into those gifted programs doesn’t help low-income kids perform like high-IQ, high-income kids. But there were some extra spaces in the gifted program, and the kids who tested to have average intelligence who went into the gifted programs performed much higher than expected.
So it turns out that if you reinforce an idea that kids are smart, they will believe you. We don’t need school to do this for kids though. In fact, the relentless ranking system in school makes it difficult to tell kids they are unequivocally smart.
2. Train the parents.
The New York Times reports a study where coaches taught the parents about the importance of play, and when poor kids got to play more, they were more likely to succeed over the long term. The conclusion of the study is that you can improve education outcomes by training the parents rather than relying only on the school cirriculum. For children, play-based learning is more effective than curriculum-based learning.
Imagine keeping all the kids at home, even poor kids. But only if the parents have extra training. I can vouch for the impact of training. Because my older son got an autism diagnosis at age two, he qualified for 40 hours a week of special education. While the free services were ostensibly for the kid with a diagnosis, the parent is an equal beneficiary of the services.
I received training from occupational therapists, play therapists, speech therapists, psychologists, and many more types of coaches. The upshot is that I have a set of rules that I parent with. Not strict rules for the kids, but standards for myself to ensure I’m doing what my kids need.
I remember thinking: how do other parents know the best things to do for their specific child without any training? This study tells me most parents don’t.
3. Help the kid find a project.
You can’t give a child a project. Assigned projects are not nearly as effective as a child discovering their interests for themselves. And when it comes to kids living in poverty, a personal passion is as close to a sure-bet ticket out of poverty as anything. Because the kid is not driven away from their home environment , but rather is drawn toward something important to them.
Ironically, kids don’t rise out of poverty by focusing on the need to make money. Although that kind of makes sense because God knows rich kids don’t stay rich by focusing only on money. They focus on their passions as well.
My blog is not about art per se, but I find myself loving the blog more when it’s sprinkled with pictures of art that I like. Now I know why: This blog is often negative. Your school sucks. Math is stupid. Kids should ditch. But art is fundamentally optimistic even when it’s dark or scary. Because art comes from passion and seeing someone express their passion means there’s someone self-actualizing. Which is, you could say, the opposite of school.