Starving Kids Won’t Make Them Read Better

An Arkansas lawmaker wants to cut school lunch funding for schools that fail to improve their students’ reading levels.

I’m sorry, what?

I think I understand the logic behind such a proposal. I just strongly disagree with it. It’s cruel, but even more than that, it’s based on a misunderstanding of human nature and human society.

The logic is this: When people do bad things, you should punish them. When they do good things, reward them.

If the schools do a bad thing (fail to teach kids to read), this bill punishes them (takes away their lunch money). Honestly that sounds more like the actions of a playground bully than an advanced democracy.

Perhaps the punishment model of governing would work if schools and teachers and students and parents were naturally bad, or if they were only failing to improve reading levels because they weren’t trying. Maybe if that were the case, a punishment might be the incentive they needed. Maybe.

But what are the odds that an entire state’s worth of schools and children and their families are all trying to do poorly?

Most Americans believe education is important to success in life. Sociological studies like the books Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau and Despite the Best Intentions by Amanda E. Lewis and John B. Diamond found that the parents and school children they studied, even those who were doing poorly in school, valued education and believed it was important to do well.

A much more likely scenario is that the students, their families, their teachers, and their schools are all trying their best and failing. And if they are failing, it’s for a reason. Or several reasons.

I’ve been teaching college for several years now. I have yet to meet a lazy student. I’ve had students cut class or fail to turn in homework, and sometimes they’ve plagiarized. There’s always a reason.

One student who turned in no papers grew up in a rough neighborhood and had an abusive family. He went to substandard schools and he hadn’t written a paper for school since 8th grade.

This student was smart, and he was one of the most motivated students I’ve ever taught. When I asked him about not turning in his papers, I found out he was afraid anything he wrote wouldn’t be good enough. He feared if he went to the school’s writing center for help, he would be ridiculed for being “dumb.”

That student ended up earning a B in my class. Punishing him wouldn’t have helped. Instead, I worked with him. I found out what his needs were and I addressed those needs. That’s how you improve education. The student and I were both fortunate that I had the time and ability to give him what he needed.

When students and schools are failing, it’s because they cannot do any better than they are with the resources they have. They need something they don’t have in order to improve. Punishing them won’t fix the problem. Helping them will.

What’s more, hunger impacts school performance. Denying children food is a sure way to worsen reading levels, not improve them.

I’m not advocating blindly throwing money at all societal problems as a miracle cure. What we need is a careful, measured approach in which we find out what the actual problems are and then study cost-effective ways to fix them.

When people are already trying their best with the resources they have and failing to improve, you can’t punish them into doing better. Especially by making kids go hungry.

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.