||Volume 23, Number 1, September 2010
UBC study says neighbourhoods predict reading skills
By Karen Lindsay
In early January, the University of British Columbia released a study in the journal Health and Place. Its findings—that the neighbourhoods where children live predict their reading skills. “The study found that children who lived in wealthier neighbourhoods while in Kindergarten did better on standardized reading tests in Grade 7 than children from poorer neighbourhoods, regardless of where they lived when they wrote the test.”
This should come as no surprise. Socio-economic factors have always been the number one determining factor in student performance. It’s part of the heartbreak of teaching—that we can’t do anything about the greatest determinant of our students’ success.
That said, public education is supposed to be the great leveler in a democratic society. All schools, regardless of their location, should be supplying the same quality of teaching, curriculum, facilities, and equipment. Today, the government is most committed to controlling the first two aspects, as it should be, and happy to ignore the last two, to the peril of our children. Making sure that teachers are properly qualified and supplied with appropriate curricula, without providing every school with rich, varied, consistent resources in stimulating, comfortable environments is like asking a chef to create a feast with only her or his expertise and recipes, but with stale ingredients and a dingy, outdated kitchen. Add to the mix that two of the patrons are allergic to peanuts, 10 are resistant to eating, four would prefer not to eat in the restaurant and could he provide the meal to them in their home, and three of their parents want to come in to the kitchen to “help.” Eight parents recognize that the ingredients are poor and offer to fundraise for fresh produce. However, they only want their children to eat the improved results. What chef could succeed—or even agree to try—in such a circumstance?
The UBC study is very sobering indeed. It means that as things now stand, a child’s fate is sealed before she or he even enters the school system. If they begin life in poverty, they will have a reduced likelihood of success in school even if their parents’ income increases over the next few years. I wonder, though, whether these children’s outcomes would be different if the schools they attended presented them with stimulating, inviting environments, optimistic, energetic teachers, abundant, diverse resources, and well-stocked and staffed libraries. Surely spending five or six hours a day in such a setting would mitigate at least some of the effects of a poor start in life.
Instead, our schools are becoming run down as facilities grants are cut. School libraries are struggling for resources and staffing, and teacher morale has never been lower. In 2008, Statistics Canada determined that the proportion of children living in poverty in BC was 21.9%, well above the national child poverty rate of 15.8%—this despite the fact that the BC economy at the time was very healthy. I shudder to think what that percentage is today. Parents in affluent neighbourhoods raise funds to make up provincial shortfalls, while those in the areas of greatest need cannot.
This UBC study should represent a strong wake-up call to the BC government. There is absolutely no point in talking about making British Columbia the most literate jurisdiction in North America while doing nothing to reduce poverty in our province and doing nothing to rejuvenate our schools. Teachers experience this reality every day and weep.
Karen Lindsay is teacher-librarian, École Reynolds Secondary School, Victoria.