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An Education Reformer Responds: "Schools Must Impact Poverty Because Nothing Else Can"

The goal of my blog is to promote dialogue, and my post from two days ago has stirred some spirited responses. I want to share and respond to one such comment, from a reader with the name "Achieve_Hartford!," in the spirit of seeking some common ground.

Achieve Hartford! writes:

I disagree with the premise that there is some philosophical chasm that exists between "teachers" and "ed reformers." In reality, I think there's simply a huge communication gap that people are just not overcoming. Having been a teacher, and considering myself a very balanced ed reformer (it's not about charters and choice and tests - its about really good schools), I don't think ed reformers are "teacher bashers." A tiny minority, maybe, but the vast majority of understand fully that teachers make all the difference, and would never blame teachers for not being able to combat all the effects of poverty. When people look at changing schools (including changing the way teachers are evaluated), they're looking not to cast blame on anyone for what's happened; they're looking to cast responsibility on someone for what will come. The message that's not being communicated well by ed reformers is this: "In light of there being no other viable means for eradicating poverty, the schools have to take up the charge." This is far from teacher bashing from where I sit, and this is what needs to be discussed.

To reiterate: ed reformers are saying that schools have to impact poverty because nothing else can, which leads to schools taking on much more responsibility and having MUCH higher expectations cast upon them for combating the effects of poverty. If you perceive a philosophical chasm, the gap is not with how teachers are viewed, it's with whether schools can or cannot be the means to eradicate poverty. I submit: if anyone thinks that poverty is going to get fixed through some other manner - by all means suggest a plan. Let's use this conversation to discuss that. I, for one, agree with the the ed reforms that say that the only chance we've got to do this is through the schools.

Dear Achieve Hartford!,
Thank you for taking on the task of defining and defending the position of the Ed Reformers.
You should know that I entered the teaching profession 23 years ago in order to make a difference for children from poor backgrounds. I did not imagine that poverty would have to be cured in order for me to make any difference. So I think it is possible for schools to make some difference, and of course we should do our best to make every school as effective as possible. So please do not interpret my critique of the ed reformers over this issue as some sort of abandonment of any efforts to improve schools, or denial of the value of education as a source of individual and community improvement.

But let's take on your presentation of the argument. You write:

"In light of there being no other viable means for eradicating poverty, the schools have to take up the charge."

I agree with you that this is the central stance of the education reformers. I disagree that it is a viable one. Here are the problems I see with this.

First of all, let's take a look at the means by which we are attempting to achieve this. NCLB set up mandates for intensive statewide systems of testing to determine achievement levels. Can we agree that students in poverty have disadvantages that affect their performance on these tests? We then use these tests to identify the schools where students perform the worst, which winds up always being the schools in the poorest, most violent neighborhoods. Then we label these schools failures, and demand that half the staff -- or at least the principal -- be fired as a condition of the school receiving improvement funds.

The theory of action here is clearly that the teachers or principal - or maybe both - are responsible for the failure. And the rhetoric that surrounds these actions reinforces this, as you can see if you read any of the justifications for the firings at Central Falls or Fremont High.

Very simply, this will not work. Schools can and must play a role in fighting the effects of poverty. But schools cannot do this work alone, and that is what has been demanded here, even in your argument. You say "...schools have to impact poverty because nothing else can..." Where is the foundation for this statement? If we look at the history of the past fifty years, we see some very interesting things.

Take a look at this New York Times article from a year ago.

The article states:

Between 2004 and last year, scores for young minority students increased, but so did those of white students, leaving the achievement gap stubbornly wide, despite President George W. Bush's frequent assertions that the No Child law was having a dramatic effect.

Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did three decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. That was well before the 2001 passage of the No Child law, the official description of which is "An Act to Close the Achievement Gap."

So let's pay attention to this. The achievement gap closed NOT during the decade when federal education policy focused on holding schools and teachers accountable for student test scores, but in prior decades when we actually DID something to change the conditions in which students learned. We actually desegregated schools, and brought students in our communities together from across town. We created magnet schools, and experimented with a variety of creative approaches to reach students from different backgrounds. I know this well, because I was a student in the Berkeley public schools in 1968, when we underwent voluntary desegregation, and I went to a new school in fifth grade as a result.

But we decided that was too much trouble, and gave it up. In Wake County, North Carolina, this week, one of the most successful desegregation efforts in the nation was abandoned in favor of a return to "neighborhood schools."
Across the nation schools have become re-segregated, and as I pointed out in my post, none of the great advocates of civil rights in the current administration have much to say about this.

There are two assumptions in your statement "schools have to impact poverty because nothing else can..."

First: Can schools impact poverty?

I believe schools can have a marginal effect on the level of poverty in a community. Unfortunately I think there are far larger economic forces at work, and education is just one part of the puzzle. When we look at the past fifty years, we often see education cited as the cause of our troubles, or the hope for our salvation, but usually this is overblown. In 1983, according to the Nation at Risk Report, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." The report called predicted dire consequences for our mediocrity. Few would argue that the report spurred immediate widespread improvement, yet the nation won the Cold War and underwent sustained economic growth during the decades that followed.

Second, can nothing else make a difference regarding poverty?

We have seen an aggressive pursuit of public policies that actually expand the gap between rich and poor - namely the tax cuts from the past decade, which greatly favored the wealthy. Now we are reaping the harvest of those cuts. Our governments are not adequately funded, and services for the poor and unemployed, and education as well, must be cut to make sure we can continue shoveling money at the war department.

I think the statement that "nothing else can make a difference" regarding poverty is a surrender to the relentless logic of the elite, who insist that all available money must flow to them. We are supposedly living in a democratic society. We need to take our economy back from the elites who hold it hostage. If we care about poverty, let's get some policies in place that create jobs for the poor, and stop pretending that "holding schools accountable" is going to make a bit of difference.

What do you think? Can we effectively fight poverty by making schools responsible? Can nothing else be done to address poverty?

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