Don’t let schools be an excuse for not fixing poverty

It’s a mystery. Why are people who call themselves education reformers comfortable with the status quo when it comes to poverty and economic inequality? Why are they OK with social circumstances that are convenient for adults but aren’t good for children?

Why can’t we talk about poverty and the challenges it presents for schools without being charged with excusing failure? As Adam VanOsdol of Indiana Education Insight noted recently: “Anyone raising the poverty issue these days gets accused of letting schools off the hook. These allegations stand in the way of serious form.”

Folks in the reform community like to say schools are the solution to poverty. Certainly good schools are part of what’s needed. But to suggest schools by themselves can solve the problem is naïve. And to suggest there’s nothing we can do is just giving up.

Just for a start, we could:

  • Raise the minimum wage.
  • Quit passing laws to weaken unions.
  • Create a fairer tax system.
  • Fund safety-net programs like food stamps, housing and unemployment.
  • Ensure people have access to health care.

And, yes, we could take on the shameful segregation of America’s education system – segregation by race and by social class – that persists 60 years after the Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional.

Skeptics will say we tried that with busing in the 1970s and it didn’t work. But as Dana Goldstein writes, there are approaches that have succeeded in making schools more diverse and effective. One is linking school policy to housing policy, as in a Maryland initiative. Another is using public school choice to create socioeconomic balance.

Just as poverty shouldn’t be an excuse for bad schools, neither should the fact that schools can help be an excuse for ignoring poverty and segregation.

Sure, change is hard. That shouldn’t stop us from doing what’s best for children.

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8 thoughts on “Don’t let schools be an excuse for not fixing poverty

  1. Education Reform means different things to different people. I consider myself an education reformer and I also support raising the minimum wage, access to quality and affordable healthcare (and universal health insurance), extending unemployment benefits, food stamp programs, housing programs, etc. Supporting great schools for all kids regardless of zip code AND supporting policies to help the poor and eradicate poverty are not mutually exclusive.

    • Reformers always talk about “great schools for all kids regardless of zip code”. The assumption is that kids in high poverty zip codes are stuck in “failing” schools and kids in more affluent zip codes attend “successful” schools.

      Using standardized testing results as a measuring stick, it’s true that many high poverty schools are “failing”. But what does that really tell us about the school?

      It tells us that poverty is a reliable predictor of standardized test results.

      The high poverty school is then labeled as failing since high poverty students generally fail standardized tests. Calling a school “failing” is a reducing a complex problem (educating high poverty students) to a useless sound bite.

      In reality, high poverty schools are “failing” due to the student population it serves, not because its curriculum is inferior or its teachers are incompetent. On the contrary, teaching in a high poverty school is incredibly challenging (I did it).

      The high poverty school is not failing anymore than a suburban school is succeeding based on the predictably higher scores of its more affluent students.

      There isn’t something special that the suburban schools are doing that the high poverty school are not. They just have higher performing students so they get labeled as an effective school.

  2. Children will not be able to focus on learning when their stomachs are empty, they are tired from staying up all night due lack of parental supervision or violence in the home or perhaps they don’t even have a home. It’s so simple, and works so well with education reform, but there is a serious disconnect in the minds of some legislators, both state and national. And, sadly, that same disconnect is there in many voters’ minds as well.

    Thanks for opening the conversation.

  3. Im not really a reformer.. more an abolish / rebuild… The current education system is broken. Its pretty clear that this is so. More and more schools are letting non qualified graduates graduate rather than dealing with the issue. how schools are funded is a joke… We have compulsory education and force property owners to foot the bill. The Economy and the 2008 housing bubble burst should have been a red light in depending on the property owners… Last i checked the private banks controlled enough homes to give every American six houses… yeah good luck squeezing the funds from those thieves….

    Compulsory Education… We force our kids to go through school for 13 years or so…. and look down on them if they don’t finish it off with a college degree….but, seriously, do we even need to go to school that long? Japanese students go to school for 3-6 years shorter and have a better education. Sure they are competitive in their education… but hell the job market is competitive… that’s something we’ve lost.

    Want to reform education, make High school optional. Put more focus on the main things the students need to know… Maths, Languages, Sciences, economy, Geography (seriously, this needs alot of work), and a few trade skills. Americans have got to fess up and start taking responsibility. Big Government want to control our lives then they need to do it right… healthcare, food stamps or whatever… If they are going to force us to live how they want us to, then they can pay for the archaic education system they are cramming this down our throats

    this country is falling behind every year because we make excuses for the system… In a better world, with better leaders… well ill leave that to every ones imagination…

  4. Steve – I always love reading your blogs. You hit the nail on the head here. And, I’m with Ms. Bentley on this. For me – school reform jives with my liberal leanings.

    I enjoyed Mr. Lineweaver’s op ed in the Indy Star from last week. If all teachers functioned at this level, I think we’d be in a good place (and I agree with his call to elevate and promote the teaching profession)
    http://archive.indystar.com/article/20140307/OPINION/303070060/1002/OPINION

    In other news – I met Scott Elliott the other day and we exchanged good words about you. You’re a popular fella!

      • Thanks, Caitlin. I knew it was you. It’s great to hear from you. Sounds like we have some catching up to do! I’m still hoping to get to Indy and will get in touch if I do. I would love to see that boy of yours before he’s all grown up.

        And it sounds like Kelly may be looking for campaign volunteers?

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