Steps in Central Park. David Reyes, 2012.

I’ve often thought that there was something simple in the idea that “if you want it bad enough, you will be able to get it.” That idea is something that allowed me to not think too critically about how our culture operates, specifically, how a nation of people who are all brought together under the guise of “freedom and justice for all” could sit idly by and watch entire generations of people disintegrate in front of us. How badly do you need to want it in order to “pull yourself up from the bootstraps” and get out of a situation that you wouldn’t know you were in.

I won’t go into the somewhat popular trope that some people who are stuck in those situations truly don’t want to get out of them. Aside from being wrong in making such a sweeping statement, it’s tremendously callous and does nothing to address the problem of why our education system has fallen to the current state that it is in. Instead, this post hopes to show the direct and indirect links between our culture, poverty, and the state of education today.

According to this well published report, In 2012, Finland topped a global survey of education quality per country with South Korea coming in a close 2nd. Both countries have placed a high priority on the importance of education yet both attend to this priority in a different manner: Norway starts school later and has less hours in the school day while homework is not usually given out while South Korea is the exact opposite with longer school days, large workloads and large amounts of homework and outside school lessons. Simply stating that they achieve the same goal albeit from different approaches misses the point – both countries place an utmost importance on education and support this with a culture that will not undermine said importance. The idea that education is not needed is not only unacceptable, it’s almost taboo.

So, how does culture play into the idea that poverty is a substantial issue in poor performance at school? In South Korea, you have a model that shows what happens when a country decides to invest in education as a means to pull itself out from the effects of war. In a little under a half of a century, South Korea has become one of the world’s fastest growing economies and its focus on education is the key to this emergence. There are various criticisms of their practices but the fact that they have consistently scored in the top 2 in PISA scores shows that the cultural shift in that country as a whole has allowed it to improve. With such a strong sense of commitment towards education, how does poverty fit into the equation? South Korea’s population that is living under the poverty line is actually on the rise, seemingly flying in the face of the argument here. However, when you look closer at that information, you find that a growing segment of that increase is in the elderly: Is it possible that South Korea has been so focused on the education of its youth that it has neglected the well-being of its elderly? Yes, it is possible. What if those generations of children that have been raised in this education system are now growing older and what those recent numbers suggest is that the population just prior to South Korea’s emphasis on education is suffering as the “last of a dying generation?” That’s a terrible thing to write but it is entirely possible.

Now we move to discuss Finland and it is distinctly different from South Korea as far as the means by which it achieves it’s top education ranking. One of the big differences in their way of thinking is in the area of exceptionalism – similar to South Korea in that the goal is to increase in national education prestige, Finland differs in that individual exceptionalism is not emphasized. In fact, it seems that the idea is not encouraged. The whole point in Finland is based on what some here in the United States have vilified as a welfare state, essentially, the population as a whole versus a divided percentage of “top scorers” vs. “bottom percentile students.” The role of poverty in this model is that the student in the Finnish school system is taken care of during school hours – students who are hungry are fed, those that need medical attention (physical, emotional or mental) have those needs addressed, and “teaching is such a desirable profession that only one in ten applicants to the country’s eight master’s programs in education is accepted.” In addition to these stringent requirements, teachers stay with their students for multiple years, learning what their students idiosyncrasies are and gaining a better ability to teach those students as they grow.  The fact that poverty is addressed as a primary foe of education in Finland helps to explain how they have improved their position in the world and it shows how an emphasis in the correct areas of a society can improve all of that society.

So with these 2 examples, what do we need to do here in the United States?  We’ve become a country that has the expectation of unparalleled success yet is unwilling to address the failures.  We’ve leaned on the idea that as long as we do what we’re supposed to do, we don’t have to worry about anyone else – That is a dangerous idea.  For 2 or 3 generations now, we have become a society of people that will not look to help one another yet at the same time, we complain that we are “getting away from traditional values.”  What were those traditional values really comprised of?  We have been taught that we are to look out for number one and that we don’t need to concern ourselves with those who disagree with us when in reality this “not concerning yourself with those who need help, who need to learn about direction, those who could use that knowledge the most,” means that we are destined to only become more selfish as a society.  Seriously, if you think that society has gone away from “traditional values” now, where do you think its going once those who you demonize as worthless start having their own children?

I’m an advocate for more parental involvement in their children’s lives.  I believe that the student – teacher – parent triad is the most powerful combination available to us.  Teachers don’t have to be paid millions but they do need to be paid enough so that the position itself is not considered one to “fall back” into..  What would happen if the combination of Finland’s approach to teacher accreditation was combined with South Korea’s parents drive and involvement ?  What if more than acronyms (NCLB and RTTT) and band aid answers (Charter Schools, Welfare, Voucher programs) to real problems were addressed?  What if we concentrated on education for the sake of our children versus the sake of our national reputation?  How could poverty survive if we spent the next 2 or 3 generations educating our children, teachers AND parents together?  What would happen if we spent the 2 or 3 generations after that pushing them even further?



One thought on “Poverty and Education: Culture

  1. Good analysis, NCLB and RTTT were decades in the planning before being rolled out to the public sphere. The princes of privatization would like a tiered system that funnels public money into private hands with little or no regulation. Guess they want to be like the bankers.

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