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On Poverty, Ed Reform, and the Most Important Foundation You've Probably Never Heard Of

Note: Jonathan Plucker, the Raymond Neag Professor of Education at the University of Connecticut, is guest posting this week. He can be found on Twitter at @JonathanPlucker.

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I'd like to thank Rick Hess for allowing me to guest blog this week. It has been a lot of fun to share some provocative ideas and see the reactions. Walking in Rick's shoes, even for just a week, is a responsibility I take seriously, and I appreciate his willingness to let me do this every so often. I also want to thank Jenn Hatfield for her help in getting everything together.

Of all the controversial topics I've blogged about over the past few years, the only one that has gotten me in real trouble was this post on poverty.

My goodness, did it get people riled up. Many hated it, others loved it. Oddly, it was the opening sentence that elicited the strong reactions, both positive and negative:

"A truism among ed reformers is that poverty is a problem, but we can't do much about it; therefore, we can't let poverty be an excuse for poor learning results."

I was stunned that this was controversial, as I've heard policymakers and reformers say similar things for years. As the negative reaction built, I googled the terms and found plenty of references to high-profile reformers saying roughly the same thing.

In the spirit of open dialogue, I tried to engage with people who contacted me directly. I apologized for offending but also asked what they thought about the rest of the post, which noted that poverty is much worse in the U.S. than many people realize, and that education reform without poverty reduction would never achieve its desired results. Tellingly, almost no one responded to my question.

All of this came flooding back to me recently, largely because of two events this week, the Fordham Institute's Education for Upward Mobility event on Tuesday and the White House's College Opportunity Day of Action yesterday. Issues of opportunity, social and economic mobility, economic vulnerability, and education were center stage at these events, and as I followed along online, I began to reflect on my comments on poverty from last year.

After serious reflection, I'm more convinced than ever that education reform can't succeed in the absence of serious poverty reduction. But I'm going to extend my argument to acknowledge that poverty reduction can't succeed in the absence of serious education reform.

The U.S. childhood poverty rate currently stand at 19.5%, representing over 14 million children, and one of the highest rates in the developed world. Nearly 10% of households experience some degree of food insecurity; this translates to over 8.5 million children experiencing some degree of food insecurity in 2013. For the 2011-2012 school year, 49.6% of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch programs, meaning that nearly half of our students live in a household whose income is 1.85 times the poverty level or less. In 18 states (plus DC), over half of the student population qualifies for lunch assistance, with over 60% qualifying in five of those states and DC.

Those data always shock me, as they represent tens of millions of economically vulnerable children. That said, I get that there are very different perspectives on the education reform-poverty reduction issue (Mike Petrilli shared some interesting and well-reasoned thoughts in his opening remarks at the Fordham event on Tuesday). But given all we know about the debilitating medical, nutritional, educational, social, and vocational effects of poverty (among many other negative effects), I just don't see how we can charge into ed reform without addressing poverty at the same time, and vice versa.

The question, of course, is "How?" Here I want to call your attention to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (JKCF). They have an approach that makes a lot of sense to me, and very few people know about JKCF and what they do.

I have a conflict of interest here, as I recently received JKCF funding to help them with some policy work. But this collaboration made me aware of the scope and effectiveness of their programs, which are remarkable. Space limitations don't allow a detailed description of the programs, but you can read more here. In brief, when Jack Kent Cooke died in 1997, he left much of his wealth to form the Foundation, which is dedicated to helping support talented students growing up in poverty (like Mr. Cooke did).

The Foundation offers three scholarships: The Young Scholars Program, which provides support from Grade 8 through high school (up to 65 recipients selected each year); the College Scholarship for graduating seniors (up to 40 recipients); and the Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship for community college students who are transferring to four-year colleges (up to 85 recipients).

The scholarships, which at up to $40,000 per year are among the most generous in the country, are only the start. The Foundation also provides financial support for some of the other "nice to haves" that wealthier students don't think twice about (travel costs for parents to attend Family Weekends, summer internship funding so students can participate in unpaid internships). In addition—and this is critically important—the Foundation has advisers who not only monitor academics and provide additional support as needed, but also guide the scholarship recipients to other campus resources. One of their staff told me that one of their mantras is, "You're not stupid to ask for help - you're stupid not to." 

Given that economically vulnerable students often don't know which questions to ask, the beauty of the Foundation's model is that it creates a framework of support that helps students learn which questions to ask. Well, the generous funding helps a lot, too, but you see my point.

However, JKCF can't do this alone, but they are pointing us in helpful directions. Harold Levy, the new president of the Foundation, likes to note, "Let's say we can help up to 50 students each year. But what about the 51st?" That's a good line and a great point, and I would go further by changing the second line to "But what about the 51st through 50 thousandth? Or the 5 millionth?"

We need thoughtful, well-designed, large-scale poverty reduction programs to work hand-in-hand with our large scale education reforms. I'm not naïve enough to believe that there will come a day in my lifetime when we won't need the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to do what they do, but let's do some smart policy thinking so we can give them and like-minded organizations a helping hand.

--Jonathan Plucker

Data Sources (roughly in the order used):

DeNavas-Walt, C., & Proctor, B. D. (2014). Income and Poverty in the United States: 2013 [U.S. Census Bureau, Current population reports, P60-249]. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre. (2012). Measuring child poverty: New league tables of child poverty in the world's rich countries [Innocenti Report Card 10]. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

Coleman-Jensen, A., Gregory, C., & Singh, A. (2014). Household food security in the United States in 2013 [Economic Research Report 173]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.

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