Six Blind Reformers and an Elephant

 /  Dec. 17, 2013, 6:32 p.m.

Early Learning Event

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s visit to the University of Chicago campus mid-October drew energized students, activists, educators, and parents from all sides of the educational spectrum. Opponents of the Common Core standards, an initiative supported by the Secretary, passed out flyers outside International House warning of the counterproductive effect higher standards will have on struggling schools. Inside the venue, cheers were heard when Duncan argued “our children must do better, have to do better, and we must raise the bar in order to do that.”

The “Schools Accountability” movement, which supports raising instructional standards inside the classroom, has occupied the limelight in educational policy for the past half-decade. Interest groups such as the Gates Foundation and the makers of the popular documentary Waiting for Superman blame low student achievement on incompetent administrators, tenure protections for teachers, and minimal expectations for instruction. They dismiss the idea of poverty being a barrier to higher achievement as a “convenient scapegoat,” arguing for a reversal of cause-and-effect: “Education is the path out of poverty, not the consolation prize offered to children whose families have managed to dig their way out on their own,” writes Peter Meyer of EducationNext policy journal. Impoverished students may face disadvantages, they admit, but it is the school’s responsibility to negate them and act as a springboard for upward mobility. Forward-thinking charter schools and voucher programs, therefore, should replace the underperforming public school model.

Bear trap

On the other side of the debate is the “Solve Poverty First” movement, who fought back last month when the Southern Education Foundation published a report on the prevalence of poverty in public schools across the United States. The findings are startling: 48 percent of students now fit the “low income” designation required for free and reduced lunch, with that number increasing to 60 percent in the South and in metropolitan areas. A relationship between the percentage of low-income kids and student achievement was also determined, as areas with a higher percentage tended to score lower. While this rise in impoverishment appears at first to be a residual effect of the Great Recession, the authors reveal that the trend is much more long term in nature: the percentage of low-income kids has risen steadily since as far back as 2001.

The part of the study most damaging to the Schools Accountability movement’s argument, however, was an investigation of the relationship between poverty and public and private school achievement. Not only did low-income public school students score far below their high-income counterparts, the report found, but this achievement gap remained the same or even widened when private and charter schools were examined, challenging the notion that these kinds of schools provide any solution to closing the gap.

Furthermore, Solve Poverty First contends, Schools Accountability ideas end up damaging the future of children by failing to acknowledge setbacks they face. Education professor P.L. Thomas of Furman University, a well-known critic of the Accountability movement, uses a colorful metaphor to describe their approach: “Children in poverty line up at the starting line with a bear trap on one leg, middle-class children start at the 20-, 30-, and 40-meter marks, and the affluent stand at the 70-, 80-, and 90-meter marks. And while gazing at education as a stratified sprint, ‘no excuses’ reformers shout to the children in poverty: ‘Run twice as fast! Ignore the bear trap! And if you have real grit, gnaw off your foot, and run twice as fast with one leg!’ These ‘no excuses’ advocates turn to the public and shrug, ‘There’s nothing we can do about the trap, sorry.’”

The wrong question

Meyer was quick to fire back. The debate rages on: Each side brings out data showing that either poverty causes failing schools, or that failing schools cause poverty. Firing these logical constructions of cause and effect at one another has been unproductive, and as long as the argument is framed this way, it will continue to be. Rather than being seated at opposing ends of a spectrum, “schools accountability” and “solve poverty first” movements have identified and occupy respective halves of a vicious cycle: poverty causes failing schools, which in turn propagate poverty, and so forth. Arguments over where the cycle starts and should end miss the point. The question should not be if poverty and failing schools cause each other, but how. Serious reformers should focus on identifying, investigating, and counteracting these areas both in school and at home.

A spoonful of Sugar

Sugar Creek Elementary school sits in a suburb of Verona, WI. The neighborhoods that feed the school are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse—38.6 percent of students are minorities and over 43 percent are enrolled in the English Language Learners (ELL) program. Despite the integration, the achievement gap between high and low-income and white and minority students is vast. Cases like Sugar Creek—a single school environment yielding disparate results for different groups of children—compel researchers to approach the problem through the study of individual students.

Sugar Creek Principal Todd Brunner sees the impact of family life on students’ achievement firsthand. He cites lack of consistent housing and food, spotty employment for parents, scant transportation to school events, inadequate after-school care, and poor homework assistance as struggles that affect student achievement. To combat this, Brunner suggests, schools should offer “more enrichment opportunities [before and after school], more field trips and guest speakers to provide the background experiences children in poverty often lack, more mentors and positive role models, more teachers that come from the same cultural and linguistic backgrounds as the students, high expectations, [and a] completely engaged and involved staff.”

For Brunner, parent involvement is also crucial. He acknowledges that studies have shown low-income parents are actually more likely to be involved in their children’s education, although this involvement has been almost entirely outside the school. However, low-income parents are less likely to participate in in-school involvement opportunities like the Parent-Teacher Association and field trip chaperoning, which research consistently shows correlates with higher student achievement. Reducing the infamously long work hours low-income parents face could free up time for parents to get involved in this way. A study of the so-called “Mincome” experiment in Dauphin, Manitoba in the 1970’s showed a relationship between fewer work hours for parents and increased graduation rates.

Brunner is not alone in his desire to address factors both at school and at home. Other administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, and parents also see the need for a multipronged solution. For the sake of students, it is crucial that policymakers and pundits give up the outdated poverty versus accountability debate.

Johnathan Guy


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