Home > Uncategorized > Public Education is NOT Failing Because it has Not Cured Poverty… It’s “Failing” Because of Short Sighted Public Policy

Public Education is NOT Failing Because it has Not Cured Poverty… It’s “Failing” Because of Short Sighted Public Policy

September 26, 2017

Alternet education editor Jennifer Berkshire wrote a post a few days ago capturing the key ideas she gleaned from an interview with historian Henry Kantor, professor emeritus in the Department of Education, Culture and Society at the University of Utah, who’s recently written a book with Robert Lowe, *Educationalizing the Welfare State and Privatizing Education: the Evolution of Social Policy Since the New Deal.* The basic premise of the book is that “… the US gave up on the idea of responding to poverty directly, instead making public schools the answer to poverty.” And what happened when the schools were incapable of addressing the problems of poverty? Here’s Mr. Kantor’s take:

One of the consequences of making education so central to social policy has been that we’ve ended up taking the pressure off of the state for the kinds of policies that would be more effective at addressing poverty and economic inequality. Instead we’re asking education to do things it can’t possibly do. The result has been increasing support for the kinds of market-oriented policies that make inequality worse.

If we really want to address issues of inequality and economic insecurity, there are a lot of other policies that we have to pursue besides or at least in addition to education policies, and that part of the debate has been totally lost. 

Ms. Berkshire summarizes Kantor’s perspective on what has transpired in the political debate on public education as “substituting accountability for redistribution”, and Mr. Kantor elaborates on that notion:

One of the end results of the way the accountability movement has transpired and evolved has been to narrow the questions about educational inequality to very technical questions. If we can just put in place the right teacher accountability system, or figure out the right curriculum standards,  that’s going to solve the problem of schools with large numbers of poor kids not doing as well. What I consider very technical questions bracket the larger questions of why it is we have so many kids concentrated in poor schools. Why do the rich kids get better schools? These aren’t just questions about accountability. They’re  more fundamental questions about class and race and power and inequality. Even though the accountability movement has often couched itself in the language of *no excuses,* and *every kid can learn,* its approach has been to narrow the debate even more and make it harder to address the questions that really underlie why some kids get an education that is so much better than other kids.

Stated somewhat differently, the “technical questions” are ones that can be reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet while the “larger questions” are messy ones that require us to all look within ourselves to examine how we are treating the least advantaged among us.

Later in the interview, Ms. Berkshire asks Mr. Kantor to reflect on the reform movement led by billionaires. His prognosis is spot on:

This seems to be one of those times where you have these really rich philanthropists trying to intervene to improve schooling, largely because they’re trying to legitimate the social system. What they wind up doing, though, is displacing the problems of economic inequality that they’ve created through their own economic policies back onto the schools. They can say: *see — we’re doing something about inequality,* but they’re not doing anything about the way that wealth is distributed or the way their companies work that would more fundamentally and directly impact those questions of inequality.

As noted in a previous post, if the tech billionaires wanted to address inequality and wanted to use technology for good instead of for profit, they would stop seeking local tax breaks and stop off-shoring their work and profits and do everything possible to, in Mr. Kantor’s words, “fundamentally and directly impact those questions of inequality” 

One key overarching point Ms. Berkshire elicited from Mr. Kantor had to do with the underlying belief that poverty can best be addressed by individual effort and NOT by social policy:

 I think what has happened in education policy really parallels what’s happened in social policy more generally. You’ve seen a tremendous disillusionment with the idea of social responsibility and *the public.* We’ve seen a shift in thinking about issues of inequality as a social responsibility to a matter of individual responsibility. Each individual is responsible for their own outcome, which is really how the market works. I think that’s the underlying ideological shift that’s driving education policy, and social policy more generally. 

While he doesn’t say so explicitly, Mr. Kantor’s premise that inequality is a matter of individual responsibility implies that poverty can be overcome by grit and determination and that any form of intervention by the government would undercut that notion. This idea of individual responsibility is easy to sell to those in the middle class voters who want to believe that their standing in society is the result of their personal initiative. I could look at my personal life story and say that I paid for my college degree through hard work and I got my doctoral degree thanks to attaining a merit-based fellowship and I worked my way up the ladder through personal effort and hard work. But the reality is that I was greatly helped by being born white, male, and into a family where both parents were college educated. My good fortune was abetted by being the eldest child in the family order and being taller than average and trained to interact well with adults and other authority figures. Had I been born into different circumstances, I am not certain that my pluck and determination would have yielded the same results. Those of us who have benefitted from social system should do everything possible to make the social system work for those who have been effectively penalized by that same system. If we fail to do so, I fear the system itself will collapse.

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