In the course of stridently critiquing the education manifesto recently put forth by the superintendants of the New York City, Washington, DC, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Denver, Philadelphia, Kansas City, New Orleans, Charlotte, and Indianapolis schools systems, among others, University of Colorado education school professor Kevin Welner says:
It is disgraceful for these leaders who are in charge of 2.5 million students – disproportionately students in impoverished, urban areas – to act as enablers for those who dismiss the need to address issues of concentrated poverty.
I highlight this because it’s crucial to understanding the worst intellectual pathologies of the education establishment. People like Welner don’t just think that Joel Klein, Michele Rhee, Andres Alonso, and Arlene Ackerman are making bad decisions in the course of helping poor children learn. Welner believes that by asserting that poor children can learn, the superintendents are hurting the cause of making poor children less poor. While many people believe this, most choose not to say it so clearly.
The question of how to think about the intersection of poverty and education is important–in many ways, it has dominated the education discourse for the better part of two decades. A journalist asked me about it recently after a previous post and here’s the email I sent in reply:
Education and learning are complicated. How much and how well students learn is a function of many factors. What happens in school matters a lot. What happens out of school matters a lot. On this, I think all reasonable people agree.
So the question isn’t “Does poverty matter?” Of course it matters. The question is “How much does poverty matter and, knowing that, what should we do?” These are the two issues those who raise the issues of poverty and education should try to address.
One perfectly legitimate response is “We should have less poverty.” We should! I think all reasonable, non-heartless people agree with this, too. The Broader / Bolder manifesto outlines a number of things that would help children be less impoverished in their health, housing, nutrition, and homes. I agree with all of them.
It’s puzzling, however, to hear people like Valerie Strauss say that “Administration officials talk about helping the whole child, but they haven’t matched the rhetoric with action.” Obama gambled his presidency on a massive overhaul of the health care system designed to give coverage to nearly all Americans. As a result, last week, for the first time, insurance companies were barred from denying coverage to children for pre-existing conditions. In the future, families won’t be impoverished by medical bills. Parents will be healthy enough to help educate their children. Obama also signed the SCHIP expansion. If this isn’t “helping the whole child,” what is?
Poverty, moreover, isn’t getting solved by Monday morning. But students will be in school Monday morning. And as all reasonable people acknowledge, both poverty and schools matter. So this leads to the more specific question of what should we do about poverty in terms of education.
This, in turn, is a function of the other question, “How much does poverty matter?” If certain levels of poverty made it impossible to learn, that would be one thing. But we have evidence that this isn’t true, both in the cases of specific poor children who learn, and in high-poverty schools where many children learn. David Berliner’s response to this observation, in which he analogizes high-performing, high-poverty schools to people who smoke and drink a lot and yet live to age 95, is incredibly inapt. In fact, I think it reveals the key flaw in his thinking.
Alcohol is alcohol, a chemical, unchanging. There’s no such thing as a safe cigarette. The human body’s ability to tolerate certain kinds of poison is genetic and ingrained. Neither the toxicity of Jack Daniels and Marlboro Lights nor the ability of any given person to withstand these things will vary.
Schools, by contrast, can change. A lot! The can have more funding, better leadership, better curricula, better facilities, better teachers. A 95 year-old alcoholic is a statistical anomaly. A high-performing school full of poor children is an example from which to learn.
So, the implications of this for education policy depend on reasoned judgments of how much better high-poverty schools could be. If a reasonable person looked at a high-poverty school and determined that there was no realistic way to give it more money, better leadership, better facilities, better curricula, and better teachers, then we could look at the performance of those children and conclude that education has done all it can to counteract the effects of poverty. It would be wrong, under those circumstances, to penalize the school and its educators, or the district overseeing them, for not achieving better results.
But that’s not the judgement that most reasonable observers of high poverty schools would make. Most of those schools can be much better than they are. So we should do everything we can to make them better, at the same time that we try to make their children less poor.
My quarrel with the Broader / Bolder folks is that they always stop short of explaining the specific, actionable implications of their convictions about education and poverty are for education. We should “account for” the effects of poverty, apparently. How? They never say. If “no excuses” is the wrong approach, what excuses are appropriate? What does that even mean?
Precision of language is important in this debate. When Joel Klein says you can’t solve poverty unless you solve education, he’s absolutely right. Poverty, like learning, has multiple causes. Poor education is one of them. There are many others–economic policy, social policy, and so on. But just as it’s undeniable that it’s harder for poor children to learn, it’s undeniable that it’s harder for people who haven’t learned to avoid becoming poor. If Klein says education is the only solution for poverty, he’s wrong. But if he says it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition for eliminating poverty, he’s right.
So this debate boils down to the appropriate weight of our expectations for schools. The straw man is the person who believes that education can, by itself, solve all socials ills. Who believes that? Or to put it another way, who is holding whom accountable to that standard? Nobody, I think. Take Michelle Rhee. She’s been valorized by the school reform crowd for increasing NAEP scores by about five percentage points in two years. Most of the poor children in DCPS still aren’t learning much. Who condemned her for not getting to 100% right away? Who says KIPP is a failure because because [the emailer said this, I'm assuming for the sake of argument it's true] only 40% of their students graduate from college, (which is the average among the entire adult population)? No one.
What’s the end game, you ask? It’s that we have schools that are well-resourced, well-run, and well-staffed enough to help poor children learn as much as they’re able. We are still a long way from there.