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Poverty:School Reform::Humanity:Global Warming

August 29, 2012

I’m a little behind in my posts, in part because of the Race To The Top grant I wrote about in an earlier post and in part because I have subscribed to Diane Ravitch’s blog, which is full of articles that intersect with my areas of interest. One of her posts led me to this article by Anthony Cody from Education Week‘s Teacher edition critiquing the Gates Foundation’s perspective on poverty. It poses this question: “Can We Defeat Poverty By Ignoring It?”.

The answer is clearly “NO”… and Cody provides a comprehensive data set to support the impact poverty has on school performance. But the whole argument against the linkage between poverty and school performance was captured in this quote of Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist who is a favorite of the run-schools-like-a-business crowd. I offer Hanshek’s quote in its entirety with Cody’s comment in parenthesis and my emphasis added:

There is no doubt, no researcher that I know that has ever said, that family background [note that he refuses to use the term “poverty.”] is not extremely important. It’s not an issue. We understand that. We don’t have the means to change families. Or we’re not willing to use that as a nation. We DO have the means to adjust what our schools do. That’s our public policy instrument. That’s why some of us spend all of our time not looking at how to change families, but how to change the schools. There’s absolutely NO evidence that if we gave $10,000 a year more income to poor families that the achievement of those kids would increase. There’s absolutely none. That’s not to say we might not, for societal purposes, and I believe it, that we should worry about the income levels of the poor people. But not because that’s the way to solve our school problems, or that we have to wait until we equalize incomes to address some of these achievement problems that are extraordinarily real.

The notion that educators are advocating increases to family incomes is a straw man argument. I don’t know of any thoughtful educator who suggests giving “$10,000 a year more to poor families” as a way to improve the school performance of children in their households. Rather, that $10,000 could be used to bolster pre-natal care, preschool programs, social services, and other early interventions that might address some of the deficiencies poor children encounter in their daily lives. The hedge fund managers who underwrote Geoffrey Canada saw the benefit of this approach… The $10,000 a year for each child in a poor family could BE the means to change families. So in that regard, Hanushek is wrong: we HAVE the means to change families… But sadly he may be right about the second part of his statement: our nation may not be willing to do so.

This whole situation regarding the relationship between poverty and education reminds me of the ongoing debate about whether humanity is causing global warming. In the final analysis, those who question the linkage between humanity and the climate make the same argument. They create straw man arguments (i.e. how are we going to power our computers if we don’t use energy?) and follow them with a statement like “and if humanity IS responsible for global warming what are we going to do about it?”, thus concluding that nothing CAN be done about it. We COULD impose a heavy carbon tax and thereby increase the efficiency of cars and power plants and/or reduce consumption. But the same rule applies to global warming: we CAN take action but we don’t want to— we don’t have the will.

The title of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation blog where this post originally appeared is called “Impatient Optimists”, a title Cody plays on in the paragraph that followed the Hanushek quote:

So this is the justification of the “impatient” reformers for disrupting and shutting down schools, dismissing whole staffs, and dislocating thousands of struggling poor children into other under-resourced buildings. We cannot WAIT to repair poverty. We have to tackle the problem where it is manageable and surmountable, in our schools. We cannot hold society accountable, so instead we will hold teachers and administrators accountable for their students’ performance.

I am an impatient optimist… I keep believing that people want to have equal opportunity for all children and will see that money spent to help children born in poverty is a good investment in the future… but it seems like time is running out. As the previous blog post noted, we are spending more on prisons than we spend on schools and as other blog posts note the gap between affluent schools and schools serving children born in poverty is widening at an astonishing rate.

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