Education: It's the poverty, stupid | Arkansas Blog

Education: It's the poverty, stupid

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An op-ed in the New York Times by a Duke professor and education writer joins the growing chorus that the education reformers are giving too little attention to the root cause of a huge proportion of the problems in education — poverty and the difficult family life it brings.

It challenges directly some of the cherished notions of the Billionaire Boys Club and their acolytes:

NO one seriously disputes the fact that students from disadvantaged households perform less well in school, on average, than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. But rather than confront this fact of life head-on, our policy makers mistakenly continue to reason that, since they cannot change the backgrounds of students, they should focus on things they can control.

No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s signature education law, did this by setting unrealistically high — and ultimately self-defeating — expectations for all schools. President Obama’s policies have concentrated on trying to make schools more “efficient” through means like judging teachers by their students’ test scores or encouraging competition by promoting the creation of charter schools. The proverbial story of the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost comes to mind.

Despite abundant evidence of the link between poverty and achievement as measured by tests, we adopted national standards that suggest all children could progress in lockstep to proficiency. There are many reasons that reformers ignore the correlation. For example:

Another rationale for denial is to note that some schools, like the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, have managed to “beat the odds.” If some schools can succeed, the argument goes, then it is reasonable to expect all schools to. But close scrutiny of charter school performance has shown that many of the success stories have been limited to particular grades or subjects and may be attributable to substantial outside financing or extraordinarily long working hours on the part of teachers. The evidence does not support the view that the few success stories can be scaled up to address the needs of large populations of disadvantaged students.

The writers offer some positive examples on how educators can offer poor kids enriching experiences that middle class kids have as a matter of course. Camps, after-school programs, social workers in schools, neighborhood improvements, health care and good nutrition.

But in the United States over the past decade, it became fashionable among supporters of the “no excuses” approach to school improvement to accuse anyone raising the poverty issue of letting schools off the hook — or what Mr. Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Such accusations may afford the illusion of a moral high ground, but they stand in the way of serious efforts to improve education and, for that matter, go a long way toward explaining why No Child Left Behind has not worked.

Time magazine, it happens, has a piece tying directly into this in attempting to explain the billionaires' motivation on education and, again, highlighting a key flaw in the approach. Standardized tests, merit pay and union busting won't get it.

Earlier this year, S. Paul Reville, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, blogged in Education Week that reformers need now to think beyond the numbers and “admit that closing achievement gaps is not as simple as adopting a set of standards, accountability and instructional improvement strategies.” In Massachusetts, he wrote, “We have set the nation’s highest standards, been tough on accountability and invested billions in building school capacity, yet we still see a very strong correlation between socioeconomic background and educational achievement and attainment. It is now clear that unless and until we make a more active effort to mitigate the impediments to learning that are commonly associated with poverty, we will still be faced with large numbers of children who are either unable to come to school or so distracted as not to be able to be attentive and supply effort when they get there.” Reville called for “wraparound services” that would allow schools to provide students with a “healthy platform” from which they could begin to work on learning.

And and lest you think bringing in a group of bright, young, inexperienced teachers is the sure cure to a calcified teacher work force, perhaps you'd be interested in this examination of Teach for America's "research" on its efficacy.

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