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Liddick: Applying what works to the ‘gap’

by Morgan Liddick

I see that once again the chattering classes are engaged in their hobby of torturing statistics to wheedle additional taxpayer monies for social programs.

The softening-up phase has begun, with a prominent article in last Tuesday’s Denver Post about the stubborn persistence of a “gap” in childhood poverty rates between white Coloradans and just about everyone else, with special emphasis on our Hispanic population. And this gap is widening, so something must be done. The author predictably hints that greater public support is the answer.

Might I propose another solution? It is neither as simple, nor as quick as dumping more taxpayer dollars on the problem. It will probably be more painful initially for the people on the wrong side of the gap. But it promises to be both a more effective and more permanent solution than other alternatives.

Let’s begin by noting that the rules for economic self-sufficiency (at a minimum) in America are pretty basic. They include getting as much education and training as possible; getting, and keeping a job, and then, another; getting, and staying, married; not having children out of wedlock. Lately, we have all been reminded of an important corollary: Never buy more of anything than you can afford. These few and simple rules served our predecessors well. Whether new immigrants or residents of many generations, most of those who followed them achieved at least modest success.

Over the past few decades, however, there has been a feeling that the old rules do not apply; that behaviors once considered scandalous must not only be tolerated, but supported in the name of individual “freedom” and “diversity”; and that the state must bear the responsibility, both financial and moral, for those who – for whatever reason – fall short. The regrettable results of this change we see around us.

Let’s take the first rule, education. According to the latest figures from the Colorado Department of Education, the high school graduation rate among Hispanic students last year was 57.8 percent – actually an improvement over 2007’s execrable 55.6 percent. For white Coloradoans, the rate was 82.3 percent. I suspect this nearly 25 percent difference in rates of graduation from the most basic of educational endeavors goes a long way toward explaining the much-lamented “poverty gap.”

Serendipitously, the house editorial in the same issue of the Post sheds light on the issue. While it dealt with the seemingly unrelated topic of teacher compensation, it made abundantly clear that in Colorado, when the term “classroom evaluations” is used, it is the teacher, not the student, who is being evaluated. This is not only exactly backwards, it is corrosive of an important end of the educational system: the creation of competent, functional adults.

The gaining of knowledge requires work, and not only on part of the instructor. It requires commitment and sustained effort on part of the student as well; both are crucial to the development of a work ethic. But in our state, we apparently think that poor academic performance is the teacher’s fault. Or the school’s. Or the system’s. But never, ever the student’s. Over time, this lack of accountability will sap anyone’s will to excel.

Illiteracy and innumeracy start slow and small, but if not caught early and corrected, over time they snowball. By middle school, basic texts are incomprehensible, and math concepts may as well be illustrated in Martian. By high school, there’s no reason to hang around; maybe there’s a job at the local garage or bakery. The circle of poverty closes; the student and any children he or she might have are very probably going to be permanent fixtures at the bottom of the income ladder.

The irony is, we know how to fix this. We’ve had a hundred years of experience with addressing these problems through tracking – in which not everyone is assumed to be college-bound, but everyone is provided the skills to succeed at the next stage of life. Through failure and remediation, so no student is passed forward without mastery of necessary knowledge and abilities. Through intensive instruction in language, so that both information in the classroom and the culture that informs it is comprehensible.

These approaches worked, and worked well, for generations. When they were abandoned in favor of more contemporary techniques pushed by education’s hermetic high priesthood of theorists, bureaucrats and political acolytes, well … We got the present, and the bill for it as well.

Perhaps we should go back to what we know works, abandoning educational fashion in favor of proven function. As we return to a system that rewards accomplishment with advancement, punishes failure and recognizes individual merit, we will produce citizens who will reduce the “poverty gap” all by themselves, instead of becoming a class of lifelong petitioners to our wallets.

It’s worked before. So it’s at least worth another try, don’t you think?

Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at mcliddick@hotmail.com. Also, comment on this column at http://www.summitdaily.com.


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