Afghanistan and East New York: How Culture and Poverty Impact the Lives of Families, Students and Teachers.

 In many ways Afghanistan and East New York are closer than East New York and the Upper East Side or the suburbs.
A few days ago a teenager had a confrontation with two police officers and exchanged gun fire, injuring both the police officer and the teenager in the 75th precinct. If I remember correctly, the 75th leads the city once again in handgun violence (see interactive crime by neighborhood map here ).
The shooters uncle bemoans,

“This is my worst nightmare. I don’t know why he comes around here,” Stafford said. “There’s nothing but unemployment. No education, nothing good in this neighborhood.”

I watch a teacher interview a kid who is frequently late or absent, he tells the teacher he lives in a “crip” project and when “bloods” get on the bus he gets off because he doesn’t want trouble. The teacher tells the kid he’s not going to graduate unless he gets to school.  Is the kid showing good judgment by getting off the bus and avoiding trouble?  Does the teacher understand the reality of life in East New York?

A counselor gives a vocation inventory to students, tells me that one student wants to be a pharmacist, he’s a really smart kid, but has terrible attendance and is failing his subjects. I chat with the kid, “pharmacist” is street argot for drug dealer, the kid smiles and we joke about the counselor, and I suggest that “pharmacist” is too dangerous a profession.

Neighborhoods have their own cultures and strict unwritten rules. Why do some schools have high suspension rates? … because you never back down, it’s a sign of weakness. If you obey the teacher, and don’t fight, you become a victim.

It is amazing how many kids rarely leave the narrow confines of their neighborhood. A trip to downtown Brooklyn is a rare occurrence, and, Manhattan, can just as well be Europe.

A New York Times articles reports on the renewed interest in the concept of a “Culture of Poverty

“Now, after decades of silence … scholars are …. conceding that culture and persistent poverty are enmeshed.”

 “Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty. And they attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation.”

 The authority figures in the neighborhood are the police and the teachers, who live all too frequently in the suburbs or in neighbors with a middle class set of values.

To Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard, culture is best understood as “shared understandings.”

“I study inequality, and the dominant focus is on structures of poverty,” he said. But he added that the reason a neighborhood turns into a “poverty trap” is also related to a common perception of the way people in a community act and think. When people see graffiti and garbage, do they find it acceptable or see serious disorder? Do they respect the legal system or have a high level of “moral cynicism,” believing that “laws were made to be broken”?

 “Moral cynicism,” crime is rampant and pervades every aspect of life, life is a hustle, and police and teachers “don’t and won’t understand” the reality of kids lives.

For some young black men, Professor Wilson, a Harvard sociologist, said, the world works like this: “If you don’t develop a tough demeanor, you won’t survive. If you have access to weapons, you get them, and if you get into a fight, you have to use them.”

 Tribes, clans and values tied to neighborhoods and poverty … are we in the heart of New York City, or a province in Afghanistan?

Culture and poverty are not excuses for bad schools, and, the Board of Education and the successor Department of Education allowed too many schools to fester.

School district leaders fail to acknowledge the impact of forces external to schools. It is essential that schools emphasize non-cognitive as well as cognitive skills in an attempt to combat the swirling eddies in the surrounding community.

Persistence pays, contends economist James Heckman, as do other non-cognitive skills—for both the individual and society.

Like persistence, dependability and other under-studied traits probably play as important a role in work and school success as do more easily measured skills, such as those recorded on achievement tests,

Does the school leader visit houses of worship in the school community?

Does s/he regularly speak with the precinct youth officers?

Is s/he aware of the role of the District Manager of the Community Planning Board? Interact with city agencies that serve the families of children in the school?

Hired someone from the school community, preferably someone in their twenties (not too far removed from school), as a school or attendance aide who can interact with “the streets”?

How much in common does the soldier patrolling an Afghani village and trying to woo villagers have with a school leader trying to win over a school community in East New York?



3 responses to “Afghanistan and East New York: How Culture and Poverty Impact the Lives of Families, Students and Teachers.

  1. Exactly! That’s why the simplistic notion of using test results to evaluate teachers, schools and students doesn’t work and is way off the mark. Complex problems require complex solutions created by experts with experience dealing with all the issues involved. Instead we have people at the top proclaiming in sound bites – people who don’t acknowledge their ignorance of the other “cultures” operating within the larger culture. I have not given up my hope that sooner than later schools will use music – the international language – to inspire kids and start to integrate the disparate “cultures.” Music and Art education, put back in the curriculum of every school will turn things around. Is anyone listening? I know kids would rather hold instruments than weapons in their hands and spend their time rehearsing rather than hanging out. Look at LA. There are many creative solutions out there – we need creative leadership.


  2. Until the culture that children live in is changed for the better, the 7 hours spent at school each day will lose out to the real world they live in. It is at the root of the problem, and it is a very big issue to address. It’s far easier to blame the schools and teachers than to actually fix the underlying cause of the problem.


  3. I took the 5th graders on a walk-about through Central Park today. We walked down 57th street to the R to return to the school.
    This is where I want you to live some day, I said to one of my students.
    I wish, he replied.
    This is where you belong, I reply.
    My work is the same as a farmer. I plant seeds.


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