A philosopher once advised that if you want to know the truth about a society, consider the situation of its least privileged. Which brings us to the South Bronx. The situation of the children there speaks volumes about New York society — and none of it is good.

this_is_dropout_nation_logoJust over a third of the Hispanic residents of the South Bronx and just under a third of the Black residents of the area have incomes below the poverty level. Median household income is half and the unemployment rate is twice the New York state averages. Twice the national average of residents over 25 years of age report to the U.S. Census Bureau that they have not graduated from high school.

This last is not surprising. According to the New York State Education Department the graduation rate in the South Bronx (New York City’s District 9) is 56 percent and just 12 percent are considered “college and career ready,” which means that three-quarters or more of those students given diplomas won’t be able to do much with them. Fewer than half of the male Black and Hispanic students graduate, which, given the correlation between education and incarceration rates, means that where the road to life-chances divides, these young men are more likely to be propelled along the route that leads through prison rather than that leading through college.

Why is this? Infantile lead poisoning may contribute. There is little a school district can do about that, beyond screening and treatment referrals. Deficiencies in parental education strongly effect student educational outcomes, as does household poverty. But these last two are, as it were, doors not walls: they are entrances to ways in which educational outcomes can be improved.

If a student’s parents are not highly educated and do not have the economic resources necessary to support the efforts of the school, then the school or other institutions must supply what is lacking. This is increasingly recognized and it is highly laudable that New York City is making an immense effort to provide preschool for all four year-olds. But that is not enough.

Children in households in, say, the upper quarter of the income distribution come into a world surrounded by books, a world in which nearly every toy is in some sense educational. They are read to incessantly and by two-and-a-half or three are being schooled in one way or another, in play groups, preschool, kindergarten, library programs. If these resources cannot be supplied by the impoverished adults of communities like the South Bronx, they must be supplied by the city and its schools.

Once in school, preferably through the gateway of all-day, literacy-oriented kindergartens, the children of the South Bronx must continue to be supported by this emulation of middle class education: challenging, high standards, lessons during the school day and late into the afternoon, on weekends, during the summer; well designed, well maintained, well equipped schools; good meals, health care. None of this is brain surgery (although all of it is typically recommended by neuroscientists). In a city like New York, where $20 million apartments are purchased for weekends or as student housing for the children of billionaires, finding the money for this is only a matter of the will to do so.

A particularly important factor in education—we all know this—is the quality of teachers. In many developed countries, such as the UK, it is axiomatic that the most effective teachers are to be found in the schools serving the students who most need them. What is the situation in District 9, where, surely, the students need highly effective teachers?

The New York State Education Department reports that while 83 percent of teachers in the district are “Effective,” just 5 percent are “Highly Effective.” In District 2, in Manhattan, 17 percent of the teachers are rated as highly effective. We need not get into the complicated issues of teacher ratings to notice that a student in District 2 is three times as likely to have a better than average teacher than a student in the South Bronx. What is going on here? Why is it that these students most in need of excellent teachers are least likely to have them? And what does it say about our society?

It has not always been the case in this country that household poverty condemned children to impoverished educations. It was once our pride that the schools were enriching, open doors through which the children of factory workers and peddlers could pass on their way to more satisfying lives. Increasingly they are not doors but barriers: unaffordable colleges, under-resourced schools. This is the road to generations of increasing inequality, a future in which the South Bronx is not unusual but the typical environment for all but the most privileged.

Featured photo courtesy of Brett Carlsen.