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Why Don't We 'Fix' Poverty While We're at It?

Deborah Meier concludes her recent discussion with Michael Petrilli today. The two hope to launch a new blog conversation in the fall. Next week, Todd Sutler of the Odyssey Initiative joins Deborah on Bridging Differences.

Dear Michael,

Poverty and global warming are alike, as you say, in the sense that both are in large man-made (and women-made). And neither is easy to "fix." Urgent pleas to be more environmentally conscious in one's lifestyle choices are not the solution; neither is a plea to the poor to get (and stay) married or remain childless, read to their children at night, oversee homework, and on and on. Both require a seriousness of purpose we are not prepared to take—I fear. But looking to schools to "fix" the world's problems is flattering—and we sometimes fall for it—but essentially a distraction. We've tried—and come up with some good ideas as my colleague Todd Sutler will describe in next Tuesday's blog post. But every time the Big Boys (forgive the sexism) try to "scale it up" fast they abandon what we've learned and fall back on the ideas for schooling that they wouldn't want for their own children combined with a totally inappropriate approach to governance—the who decides what question. There is another way.

Now, thoughts in response to some of yours.

Why is early pregnancy more frequent among the poor—as well as larger families? Girls Inc. some years ago did a study and discovered that it wasn't a lack of sex education, but rather the lack of a better and more reasonable future plan. I'd add, the lack of marriageable men.

We have become a nation where social mobility has precipitously declined so that today the United States has the highest inequality and almost the least amount of mobility. It's not a promising picture for even the more middle-class women of color.

Irony of ironies, the richer we are, the more likely we are to select schools that resemble my earlier post rather than a "no excuses" school. (Friends' schools, Daltons, Lab School in Chicago, etc.) Why do those with a real choice elect for very small class sizes, highly credentialed and experienced staff, attention to the aesthetics of the environment, plenty of outdoor space, no dearth of arts of all sorts, plus sports, physical education, well-staffed support services, and even nice dining areas, well-furnished teachers' lounges, and usually paid non-instructional time for teachers to meet together? And actually a shorter school year! As Todd will show, we can use our resources better , but ...

The schools the rich use rarely give standardized tests or build their curricula around them. That's not a money question. We could all follow suit. It's no wonder that teachers who choose to work in good private schools say that, in part, it's based on the autonomy and respect given them there. (The unsaid is that some prefer the kids, too.)

And on top of that, why do so many of my wealthier friends sign their children up for expensive weekend and summer activities, take them on exciting vacations, and pay people to look after them when they are too busy? Because they think it's good for them! Maybe that it will improve the odds that their children will remain at the "top"? Or, are they simply the only ones allowed to value happiness for its own sake? Who else has such a choice?

Why do the children of my rich friends seem unharmed when they accept the financial support of their parents? What evidence do we have that such largess leads, as you suggest, to "reducing their incentive to work" or "infantilizes" them? Does it infantilize the rich if they don't have to take menial paid jobs in the summer but can opt for more interesting and resume-attractive internships? Unpaid internships are for those with connections and money and the answer to the absence of decent jobs.

I suspect we fundamentally disagree about the effect of having more tax money; more money could effect everything I've described about poor vs. rich people's children's odds. No amount of character training, or even the best of schooling, can change the odds for most. Growing up in communities of deep poverty has an impact. There's no inoculation for the damage it does—even in terms of death and dying. In addition, many reformers underestimate the price young people pay intellectually and socially because of their daily encounters with racism. The price of having to be ever vigilant—alert at all times in case one's dignity (one's honor) is under attack is substantial. Even what might seem an advantage—their greater self-reliance and independence—is turned into a disadvantage in kindergarten. We ask too many vulnerable kids to leave their real selves and their real life experience (and language) at the doorstep before entering the schoolhouse. A recipe for failure.

Why are we closing Head Start centers this year rather than opening more? Money. Why don't we respond, as you suggest, with more prenatal care, home visits, the eradication of lead poisoning, and the reform of the justice and prison systems? Money. And the will to spend money on the poor.

I know where my previous co-blogger, Eric Hanushek, stands on this. He thinks directing more money to schools is a waste of resources. It occasionally drives me into a rage. Lifting the weight of poverty off the backs of newborn children would be a good starting point. Meanwhile removing the weight of federal- and state-mandated testing and nationally standardized curriculum, etc., etc., will help us return school reform in the promising direction that preceded this new wave of what us old-time reformers sometimes call "corporate reform."

So, onward and upward with your proposal on loosening the stranglehold of the "one right way." I'm on board. Although I shudder when you tie such increased liberty to "rigorous metrics." But ...

I consider judgment based on evidence to be rigorous (unless it's merely a synonym for hard). Metric-al? We can report much of the data you refer to (graduation rates, college-going, etc.), but we're unlikely to get honest information as long as there are high stakes attached. Or we're likely to push kids into college so we, not they, look good. (As we did at least once at Central Park East Secondary School. Fortunately, he ignored our efforts to get him to apply to college and went instead directly into the police academy. He has had an honorable and well-paying career ever since.) Alas, if we cut off such routes to success and make all decent jobs dependent on college we'll "look" tougher, but "do" worse. I'd rather put aside money for such youngsters to go to the university at a point in their lives when they might better appreciate and succeed at studies not directly tied to useful, real-life skills. They're 18 years old and ready to be useful. And then, I'd like a new GI Bill—so that no one goes into serious debt or has to work at a poorly paid job while in college.

Yes! Let's look at the New York state consortium plan, and others like it, and see what we can come up with that would offer more choices with regard to graduation requirements. But why place the current exams as the default—the norm—when we know how poorly they are at measuring what they pretend to—and are so peculiarly sensitive to race and class? (See the work of psychometricians James Popham, Robert Linn, and Daniel Koretz on just the impact of measurement error.)

The current wave of reform has so far demonstrated little if any success on the instruments the new reformers have chosen for measuring progress. It takes time, they say. The same is true for any approach—mine, too. (And is an argument for some forms of choice—it undermines legitimate resistance, for example, and reinforces the idea that more than one path might "work.") We could build in some red flags that suggest a re-evaluation; but otherwise let's just cheer them on and on—as they learn, modify, revise what they see as THEIR plan. Ditto for the common core. Let it be a choice, not a mandate. (See Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker's recent piece in The New York Times.)

We're onto something. Maybe. Who will go first in drafting a plan? (Summer homework!) Maybe Todd's visits to schools that he found particularly interesting will give us ideas, too. Take a look at next Tuesday's blog.

Have a happy summer with your family, Michael.


Editor's note: This post has been updated.

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