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In Tackling Poverty, Government Shows Its Shortfalls

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Washington

On occasion, researchers release studies where the conclusion draws a certain, eloquent reaction that goes something like this: "Duh." But even if dismissed for stating the obvious, such studies, intuitively concluded or not, serve to support and improve past research, and develop new ways of thinking about a problem.

Sometimes, though, the existing research will suffice. This week, two organizations, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the NAACP, published separate reports that conclude much the same way: The investigation into America's broad education problems is over, and now it's time to do something.

"We've studied the problem, we know what it is. We've studied the solutions, we know what those are," said Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP, at a press conference yesterday in Washington.

The reports together end up like some kind of a narrative. The NAACP report, a four-year endeavor entitled "Finding Our Way Back to First," presents an entire rubric for the American education system, from reading comprehension to teacher evaluation to funding streams. The Casey Foundation advisory, "Youth and Work," depicts what lives await students who don't succeed.

Problem With a Capital 'P'

Jealous has a valid point. Study after study points to the underlying causes of education problems, but many share a common thread: poverty. The scope of the NAACP plan, in particular, puts poverty in perspective.

Research shows that children in low-income families, frequently unable to access literature and Internet resources, are less-skilled readers than higher-income peers. Impoverished children are more likely to be mobile. They're more likely to be unhealthy and diabetic. They're more likely to be truant and drop out. And for young students, the stress formed by strains from poverty may permanently alter their health.

After leaving school prematurely, troubles grow worse. Youth employment is at its lowest level since World War II, according to the Casey Foundation report. That likely won't change anytime soon, either, as employers seek more-educated workers across all levels of commerce.

"It often takes a GED to get a job flipping hamburgers," the report says.

(I took this with a grain—or bun—of salt. But Patrice M. Cromwell, director of economic development and integration initiatives for the Casey Foundation, said via email that personal interviews revealed youth turned away from restaurant and retail jobs for not having a diploma.)

But wait, there's more: Census data show increasing poverty rates. The Southern Regional Education Board reported in April that an additional 2.4 million children qualified as impoverished between 2005-2010.

And, of course, poverty is sad.

And That Rhymes With 'G' and That Stands for 'Government'

The NAACP views the correctional system with particular ire, wary, it says, of an industry that receives increasing funding at the expense of schools.

"We give up on our kids too early, and we pay a lot to warehouse them in prison 10 years later," said Jealous.

But even where government largesse exists, problems do, too. The federal government, under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, provides money for schools to help the disadvantaged, but in ways that don't always make sense.

"Children living in concentrated poverty are poorly served by a labyrinthine funding scheme comprising four separate formulas," wrote the Center for American Progress in a 2009 report on Title I funding (PDF).

And lest 2009 seem too far gone to be an accurate judge of the government's funding prowess, rest assured, 2012 is still not ice cream and daffodils. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services converted Head Start funding to a competitive-grant program last December in an attempt to improve the quality of programs that benefit the poor. The end result, though, is an initiative that, as my colleague Lesli Maxwell details, is mired in transparency issues and delayed without rationale.

The Great Recession/Lesser Depression/Era of Extreme Financial Inconvenience doesn't help matters, either. And if the United States falls into a full-blown austerity crisis at the end of the year—a crisis that Congress essentially created, remember—for itselfat its own choosing—then some education programs, many of which target the disconnected students (including Head Start), may see funding cuts.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, meanwhile, faces issues with housing aid, and the Department of Agriculture is occupied with trying to clarify the rules on free and reduced-price lunches.

State governments don't necessarily clear things up. As the NAACP notes in its report, while states like Utah spend more per pupil in schools with higher-poverty rates, other states, like New Hampshire and Illinois, run the reverse direction.

Locally Grown

The NAACP and Casey Foundation ultimately agree that real change in education must take a multi-faceted, local approach. While U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a call-to-action to parents at the NAACP conference, focus went to the nonprofit sector, too. The NAACP plans to roll out the full power of its broad network to work on passing legislation that tackles central issues, such as zero-tolerance policies.

The Casey Foundation, meanwhile, praised programs such as Project U-Turn, in Philadelphia, that allows older teens to earn a high school diploma or GED. And it warns of nonprofits stepping on each other's toes, advocating for an infrastructure that knows how to coordinate to achieve its ends, such as navigating funding streams.

For Jealous, at any rate, the change begins now.

"Our goals are not something that we aspire to, our goals are not something that we want to do, our goals [are] what we will do."

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