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In this segment, Karl Professor Karl Alexander concludes his discussion about his nearly three decade study that exposes the structural barriers to escaping poverty in Baltimore

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: So, as you’ve been observing this, what are the policy solutions that could be most easily implemented that could have the greatest impact?

KARL ALEXANDER, JOHN DEWEY PROF. OF SOCIOLOGY, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIV.: Well, those are large topics, ’cause I think those are–.

NOOR: It’s more than a two-minute answer.

ALEXANDER: Yeah, the issues are different in terms of trying to open up greater opportunities for children to be successful at school, on the one hand, and opening up our opportunities for young people to be more successful in the world of work without a college degree, ’cause a lot of kids in Baltimore and places like Baltimore, as much as we wish for them to be able to go to college and kind of move on with that, they’re not going to, as a practical matter. So are there other ways to help them to be comfortable and successful as young adults? So there really are these two areas that need attention.

The education one is such a big and complicated one, because it plays out all along the way, from the very first grade, where children begin–disadvantaged children, African-American and white, they begin school; then in the fall of first grade, their test scores are already behind on average, those of children from more advantaged backgrounds, and their rates of first-grade retention, having to repeat a grade, are much higher. So it starts early on.

What you would like to be able to do, what I would like to be able to do, if I could kind of create the world my dreams, would be to help disadvantaged children not fall behind in the first place academically, because once they’ve fallen behind, it’s so difficult to have them catch up. So keeping up along the way would be vastly preferable to having to resort to rearguard actions to help them make up if they’re reading at three grade levels behind, as many are when they get into middle school.

So what we find in the experiences of our youngsters, ’cause we have test scores, is that there’s a three grade level difference on average between the advantaged group and the disadvantaged group. So by the time when–at the end of elementary school, the end of fifth grade, the typical middle-class youngster (that’s a youngster of middle-class background) is reading at a sixth grade level already. The typical youngster from a working-class or a low-income background is reading at a fourth grade level. A three grade level difference at the start of middle school does not augur well for the future, especially if you’re reading at a fourth grade level when the expectation is that you’re going to be reading at a sixth grade level. It’s just really uphill.

So investing in early education, interventions, preschool, and maybe even before preschool, to provide more high-quality preparation for school for disadvantaged children would be a very important–would be my first and foremost place where I’d want to try to make a difference. And then, if you can get more disadvantaged children to start school already kind of where we would want them to be, then continuing efforts to help them stay up along the way, with enrichment experiences and all the things that middle-class children can take for granted that aren’t readily available to poor children.

High school to college transition is a whole ‘nother–then, you know, you’re kind of skipping over a lot, but then lots of disadvantaged children start college but don’t finish, and because they don’t have the–. There are four considerations that come into the literature, and each of them needs to be attacked.

One is that many of them begin school with weak academic skills. If they start in a community college or even a four-your university, often they’re obliged to take remedial classes to get the skills that they should have had in high school but don’t. So there are academic deficiencies.

There are problems of motivation or clarity of purpose. And this isn’t peculiar to low-income children, but I think it’s more of an impediment to them. They don’t really have a plan for why they’re in college, and so it’s harder for them to be motivated to stay the course and they kind of drift aimlessly, even though they think that they should be going to school, which they should.

There’s all the challenges that they have to deal with in their lives outside of school which don’t get the attention that they should, but I actually think that that’s probably the single foremost issue, being able to fund their college education, being able to deal with personal challenges and family challenges like providing for a child. You know, there are a lot of–most low-income children who go to college are part-time students and computer students. Many of them have children, many of them have other family responsibilities, and it’s just too much for them to shoulder to stay the course.

The fourth issue is helping them gain access to better resourced schools. So I think the community college system is terrific. I’m thrilled that we have it. But in point of fact, graduation rates in the community colleges are abysmally low. That’s shocking. So if we could fix that, that’d be great. But it will be better still to have more children have the opportunity to go to higher-quality four-year colleges and universities. As a practical matter, community colleges and less selective four-year colleges are under-resourced relative to–the investments per people are much lower. So those schools really aren’t geared up to be able to help their students stay the course to the same extent that the more selective four-year colleges and universities are. So helping more of these young people find their way to schools that can support them and provide for their needs would be very helpful.

So that’s my four-part agenda for fixing the educational system: early education, helping children keep up along the way, improving college attendance, and, also, at schools that can better meet their needs than is happening today.

The workplace challenges are–that’s daunting, but I think the workplace challenges are harder still. So long as the non-college labor market substantially relies on word-of-mouth hiring, people who don’t have strong social networks to help facilitate that are at a bad disadvantage. And that’s not easy to change, because it traces back generations. So that’s one problem; maybe for more formal hiring practices would be helpful.

But a large issue on top of that, the formal hiring practices, is to somehow break through the negative stereotypes and preconceptions of the work ethic of African-American–young African Americans, especially young African-American men. Employers, employer surveys show this time and again, that employers in the non-college labor market are skeptical of African-American men, young African-American men. And that’s a barrier. It holds them back. They’re reluctant to hire them. Often these employers will screen on where you came from kind of neighborhood-wise, if not race explicitly. So they won’t hire kids from the projects. Well, who are kids in the projects, right? Substantially, disproportionately African-American.

So there’s a lot of impediments to breaking through, to getting a fair hearing and an opportunity to prove yourself. And overcoming those barriers, it’s truly daunting, because it’s not something that you can–there’s no lever you can use to just turn it around. But I think those are the large issues, and they are real challenges.

And also, I guess, a third area is to somehow smooth over the difficulties that are associated with an arrest record or arrest conviction record. African Americans have much higher arrest and conviction rates than whites.

NOOR: Especially for drug use, which we know is less.

ALEXANDER: Especially for drug use, which is–it’s an equal opportunity. Whites use drugs, use marijuana, certainly, and heavy drugs in our evidence even more so, at the same rates as African-Americans, but it doesn’t create the [same] problems for them in terms of job access as it does for African Americans. And other kinds of problems, encounters with the criminal justice system. So somehow smoothing over all that so that African Americans are afforded the opportunity to prove themselves, which many of them will, instead of reacting to these preconceptions that are so terribly offputting. And there’s no magic formula for fixing that, but it needs attention.

NOOR: Great. Thank you so much.

ALEXANDER: My pleasure.

NOOR: I appreciate it.


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Karl L. Alexander is Chair and John Dewey Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University. He has been at Hopkins since 1972. Alexander previously chaired the department from 1985 to 1993 and from 2006 to 2009, is past President of the Southern Sociological Society, past Chair of the Sociology of Education Section of the American Sociological Association, was editor of the journal Sociology of Education from 2003 - 2006, and he currently directs a federally funded Predoctoral Training Program in Education Research. Since 1982 he and colleague Doris Entwisle have been directing the Baltimore-based Beginning School Study (BSS). The BSS is a long-term study of youth development with a particular interest in the lasting imprint of early home and school experiences. It has been tracking the life progress of a panel of 800 Baltimore youngsters since first grade in 20 Baltimore city public schools.