The Real Problem in the American Education System: It’s the Poverty, Stupid

The Chicago teacher strike has sparked a heated debate about how much to blame teachers for America’s failing schools.  I think this totally misses the point.  American public schools aren’t failing in general, American public schools are failing poor people.

It’s time we start considering something a bit more uncomfortable.   Maybe generations of education reforms to improve schools in low-income communities haven’t worked because the problem… is poverty itself?

The much-hyped failing schools you see in documentaries simply don’t exist in wealthy communities.  There’s a reason they didn’t film Waiting for Superman at Bel Aire Elementary School.  An unwitting viewer might then accidentally reach the conclusion that teachers unions were producing outstanding results in public schools.

In fact, even rich kids in failing  urban school districts succeed.  Despite the miserably low test scores of average Chicago public school students that have become a media feeding frenzy, for white children from non-poor English-speaking households, test scores in Chicago public schools are actually higher than the average school district.  So if you’re a middle-class white parent in Chicago, you really should send your kids to those awful public schools– they’ll probably turn out great.

I’ve attended a low-performing public school in a low-income community and an outstanding public school, serving mostly middle and upper-middle class students.  Both had teachers unions, tenure, bureaucratic school districts, and like any workplace, some people were just good at their jobs and some just weren’t.

So why the inequality?  I want to get up on a mountaintop, grab a megaphone and yell “It’s the POVERTY, stupid!”

We’ve reached an odd consensus in Washington, where both Democrats and Republicans believe that teachers unions are the main barrier to improving the American education system.  (Credit to Michelle Rhee for single-handedly permanently shifting the American political debate— not something most people can claim).

Yet only about one-third of the achievement gap can be explained by in-school factors.  The remaining two-thirds are the result of factors outside of the school.  When kids have poor nutrition or untreated health problems or unstable housing or parents who don’t have the time/education to read/talk to them in high vocabulary or they’re ducking bullets on the way to school, it makes an enormous impact on their ability to learn.  Yes, teacher quality is the largest in-school variable affecting education outcomes, but most of the real difference is coming from influences outside the classroom.

I believe the reason the American education system has such a large disparity between rich and poor is because America has such a large disparity between rich and poor.

America’s education system is exceptionally bad compared to other countries at educational opportunity for low-income children.  Not like that one country that attaches its own name to the word “Dream” to symbolize how they’re the land of opportunity.  Oh wait.  Fuck.

Well, at least there are other countries doing worse than us.  Suck on that, Czech Republic!

Not only do we have high inequality in education between rich and poor students, unlike racial achievement gaps, it’s actually getting worse.  Note that the big growth of this achievement gap has pretty closely mirrored the widening gap between rich and poor in the US from the late 70’s until today.

This all leads to what might seem like a dismal conclusion:  Poor kids will never have high-performing schools.  Even if Michelle Rhee personally teaches every one of them herself, spurred to work extra hard by the incentive of being constantly watched by a panel of parents who can drop her into a pit of spikes below the classroom with the pull of a lever.

Yes, that sounds depressing.  But is it really?

I’m not saying we can’t close the achievement gap.  I’m saying to address a problem, look at its root.  And most of the root cause of this problem lies in factors outside the classroom related to poverty.  Our political debate is totally ignoring the biggest root of the problem.

Yes, eliminating poverty in America seems harder than just converting all our schools to charter schools or replacing all teachers with TFA kids or some other education reform idea that hopefully doesn’t cost any money.

But we’ve made huge reductions in poverty before, during the War on Poverty in the 1960’s.  We know how to do it, we just stopped caring a couple decades ago.  In fact, I would say we know how to reduce poverty better than we know how to turn around failing schools.

Sure, we can still figure out how to make schools as effective as possible.  But debating the best method of getting better schools for poor kids gives up on the radical idea that maybe those kids don’t have to be poor.

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