Poverty, Complexity, Responsibility, and the Soul of Education Reform
At first glance, poverty is an unlikely flashpoint in the great progressive debate about schools. All good progressives oppose poverty, right?
Yet to hear some people tell it, there’s a whole swath of folks out there who don’t want to improve anything about schools until we “fix” poverty. To hear others tell it, there’s a powerful bloc denying the impact of poverty on kids, families, communities, and schools. The quick way out of the question is to say, “Let’s do both at once,” and then go back to whatever else is on your agenda.
Let’s do a little more than that today.
First, the facts. Poverty matters. A lot. Toxic stress and the constant need for tough, consequential decision-making drains the brain. The effects of growing up in poverty persist into adulthood, even if one eventually moves out of poverty. All of these things hurt kids and their families, and they show up in school in lots of different ways. Test scores, behavioral problems, and on and on.
Second, the myths. It’s not about generic “family involvement” (especially since poor families tend to display more at-home involvement in their kids’ lives, even if making it to conferences is difficult). It’s not about drugs or alcohol; the richer you are, the more likely you are to have a problem with those. It’s not about laziness or lack of will.
It’s about lack of opportunities. It’s about lack of access to good, affordably early childhood experiences, lack of a robust set of after-school activities, lack of time and transportation and reliable income, housing, and health. It’s deep, it’s entrenched, it’s hurting kids right now, and it’s growing.
It’s also not the only reason why we have an educational equity gap. Schools serving under-resourced communities struggle with high teacher turnover, low levels of teacher experience (which, yes, does matter), and decaying buildings. They’re understaffed in key areas -- not just teachers, but counselors, librarians, social workers, and nurses -- and weren’t designed to end poverty.
Fighting poverty can end up looking a lot like school reform. Don’t like where you live? Here’s a voucher to live somewhere else. Don’t like your kids’ school? Here’s a voucher, a bus, or a charter school. Choice alone isn’t enough, though. We’re always left asking, “What about the people who are still there?” Hollowing out our cities by moving everyone to the suburbs is even less practical than trying to improve schools through competition. And, as is growing increasingly clear, choice left unmanaged tends to lead to increased segregation with few or no big-picture gains to show for it. This is true for housing and for schools.
Against this backdrop, we’re left with the question of what to do about the schools. “Fixing poverty” cannot be a precondition for improving schools, and few people claim it should be. This does not mean that everyone will agree with the preferred policies of whatever branch of education reform you claim as your own.
There are branches to education reform, after all, and we should be better about acknowledging them. I’ve already discussed why choice alone isn’t enough. Stricter “accountability” rules linked to test scores aren’t likely to achieve much of significance, either. This isn’t a rules and incentives problem, although the hypothesis made sense at one time. This is, as many feared, a capacity problem. That usually means that something is expensive (and not in the profitable way).
Changing the rules and the managers will not significantly advance educational equity any more than waiting for the amelioration of poverty. Choice and accountability policies, as practiced today, too often risk dispersing or reducing capacity, which is a valid reason to oppose them.
That’s not a reason to throw up our hands in despair. It does mean recognizing that housing policy is education policy. We should also invest in widespread, high-quality, affordable early childhood opportunities. We should fund a wide array of summer programs aimed at enrichment. We should do more to empower teachers and school leaders in setting and executing the vision for their schools, but do so within a district system that can help families navigate the options available to them. We should work on turning our segregated, student-starved district schools into integrated, appealing district schools.
These are affirmative things that directly affect education. They express a different vision than that espoused by many choice advocates, and they don’t focus on the same topics that animate “accountability” advocates. They are still education reform, and they do not rely on “fixing poverty first.” Expectations for how much these reforms can accomplish, though, do need to be informed by the realities of poverty.