The poverty gap: There are always exceptions, but they make bad education policy
This week I wrote about a discussion on school reform between President Obama and NBC's Matt Lauer that walked right up to the issue of the effects of poverty on student achievement but then veered away.
Calling the issue "the elephant" that the two ignored, I cited statistics and studies showing the strong connection between poverty and education and noted that today’s crop of education reformers like to dismiss the issue and say that teachers use it an excuse when their students consistently have low standardized test scores.
Some readers pointed out that some high-poverty schools are successful with needy children without changing the conditions of their life outside school.
They are right. There are always exceptions. Ursula Casanova’s new book, “Si Se Puede! Learning from a high school that beat the odds,” demonstrates this at a terrific school for Latino kids.
But that isn’t the point.
As David Berliner, researcher and professor emeritus (and Casanova’s husband) notes:
“The way I counter these comments is to remind people that we all know the story of the guy who smokes a pack and a half of cigarettes and drinks a pint of bourbon a day and lived to 95. There are exceptions to the rules. So what? Most people won't smoke and drink heavily even if they know this story of exceptionality because they also know the most likely case is that you will die younger and possibly horribly."
"Poverty usually effects lives in bad ways --- but occasionally a teacher or a school makes a difference, and that is wonderful. But it doesn’t change the odds very much since the default position is harm for kids in poverty just as it is for heavy smokers and drinkers."This isn’t to say that schools can’t make some difference in some circumstances, and that they should get a pass for failing to try. It is not to say that lousy teachers should be allowed to stay in classrooms.
But we need to accept this reality: The strongest predictor of student success in school has long been family income and parents' education level.
So we can applaud and shower with attention the students and teachers and schools that beat the odds, but it’s a bad idea to pretend that the exceptions are anything but exceptions.
New statistics released by the Census Bureau this week show that three out of 10 children in the nation’s capital were living in poverty last year, with the number of poor African American children rising at a breathtaking rate.
Among black children in the city, childhood poverty shot up to 43 percent, from 36 percent in 2008 and 31 percent in 2007. That was a much sharper increase than the two percentage-point jump, to 36 percent, among poor black children nationwide last year.
Does this affect the city’s public school system?
You bet it does, even if D.C. Schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee likes to say that it is just an “excuse.”
Ailing urban school districts cannot be fixed by school educational “reforms” alone. The Harlem Children’s Zone, which wraps health, social and other services around kids from the time they are born, gets this.
The Obama administration, in a bow to the logic of the HCZ, this month gave one-year planning grants of up to $500,000 each to 21 neighborhoods to build Promise Neighborhoods, which, like the HCZ, would provide health and other services to kids.
Obama has requested $210 million in his fiscal 2011 budget, including $200 million to support implementation of Promise Neighborhood projects and $10 million for planning grants for new communities, according to the Education Department.
But the amount of money is minuscule compared with the money Obama is spending to push charter schools, standardized tests and common standards. Obama’s chief education initiative so far, Race to the Top, was a $4.3 billion competition for states that agreed to certain reforms, none of them about health and other services.
Administration officials talk about helping the whole child, but they haven’t matched the rhetoric with action.
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| October 1, 2010; 11:49 AM ET
Categories: Race to the Top, School turnarounds/reform | Tags: harlem children's zone, hcz, obama, obama and eform, promise neighborhoods, race to the top, school reform
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