I read the New York Times a lot, and naturally I pay special attention when the Times publishes articles on education reform. Today’s article, the op-ed “The Unaddressed Link Between Poverty and Education”, had me upset all day. Its authors, Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske, make the argument that we should address poverty, rather than schools, because there’s such a strong correlation between a student’s socioeconomic background and his or her academic performance.
Their argument isn’t new, and this article isn’t an especially strong version of it. Many of the ideas they promote make more sense as part of school reform than as uncoordinated efforts: high-quality preschool, early language exposure, enrichment programs, and health and nutrition support are all on the radar screens of reformers who want to improve student achievement and understand that these issues play a role. It just doesn’t make sense to drop school-centered reforms and address these issues separately. It also doesn’t make sense for these programs to be the main focus in situations where administrative leadership and teacher effectiveness are lacking, which is unfortunately the case at many struggling schools.
At one point, the article acknowledges that education policy makers “can’t take on poverty itself”. I agree that that’s the case, but if it’s true, then why do the authors advocate doing exactly that?
I was especially frustrated that it specifically mentions a lot of things that I think are good, then discredit them as bad without explaining why. For example, “policy makers mistakenly continue to reason that, since they cannot change the backgrounds of students, they should focus on things they can control.” I don’t think this is a mistake. Even if student backgrounds are responsible for 80% of their poor performance and failing schools are only responsible for 20%, it still makes more sense to focus on fixing the 20% of things we have control over than it does to flail about blaming student demographics.
Similarly, the article acknowledges out that some schools “have managed to ‘beat the odds’”, then dismisses out of hand the thought of scaling those programs: “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.”
Why not? Even if you don’t like charter schools (the authors cite the KIPP system as their example of success), you can still implement many of their best practices in a traditional public school setting. Right now, this doesn’t happen regularly, partly due to excessive animosity between the two camps. I’m not certain what evidence the article is referring to here, but we should remember that, regardless of any faults they may have, the best charter schools do employ some really successful strategies. If our education system cannot bring those effective strategies to scale (and I sometimes worry that this is the case), then that’s a systemic problem that needs to be remedied; it’s not an excuse to stop developing techniques that lead to greater student achievement.
I hope that we can get beyond politics and defeatism to achieve dramatic improvements in our country’s schools, but when I see articles like this one, I worry that our national conversation is stuck in the same unproductive place it’s been for decades. The current ed reform movement has so much potential; please, let’s not quash it with lame arguments.