Last week, Dropout Nation contributor Matt Barnum noted the penchant of education traditionalists to advance the Poverty Myth of Education through faulty statistics and exaggerated claims that school reformers don’t offer thoughtful ideas on how to help families emerge from being economically poor. These two issues have come up once again, this time, in a “dialogue” between Education Week columnist Anthony Cody and Chris Williams of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on systemic reform.
Cody took a shot at advancing poverty mythmaking last week when he proclaimed in one of his responses that Gates and other reformers were ignoring “the effects of poverty and racial isolation” on how children perform in school and ultimately, their paths in life upon adulthood. By focusing on improving teacher quality and other reforms instead of attempting to “hold society accountable” for impoverished conditions, school reformers fail to tackle “the conditions in which [students] live”. Instead of transforming schools, Cody would rather embrace so-called Broader Bolder approaches featuring anti-poverty programs for which education traditionalists unsuccessfully advocated a few years ago (as well as increasing school funding, and support the expansion of public- and private-sector unions). He latter declares that Gates failed to address his points in its counterpoint.
As with so many traditionalists, Cody would rather ignore the fact that reformers actually do talk plenty about addressing poverty, just not in the manner that fits his impoverished worldview on the role education plays in addressing those issues. He also ignores the reality that the education spending has continued to increase for the past five decades, and that much of the troubles with American public education has little do with money than with the fact that so much school funding is trapped by practices such as degree- and seniority-based pay scales for teachers that have no correlation with improving student achievement. But those are matters for a later day. Why? Because Cody’s puts on full displays the problems of the poverty mythmaking in which he and other traditionalists engage.
Through citing a piece from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, Cody attempts to use data from the infamous study on child vocabulary development written by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. But as Boston College professor Curt Dudly-Marling (no fan of the school reform movement) has noted in his own work, the Hart-Risley study is based on a comparison of six poor black families in Kansas City and 13 middle-class households, plagued by “serious limitations in their methodology and analysis”, and essentially plays into stereotypes held by traditionalists that poor families are incapable of helping their kids learn. Simply put, Cody is basing his argument in part on shoddy data and desultory thinking. This shouldn’t be shocking. The use of Hart and Risley’s crap study (along with the even more abysmal pedagogy offered up by Ruby Payne) is typical among traditionalists looking for go-to sources to base their faulty argument.
In citing the impact of crime and violence on children in poverty, Cody fails to consider how dropout factories and failure mills (along with the lack of focus by city officials on addressing quality-of-life issues) feed into crime-ridden conditions. The most-critical area schools struggle is in providing literacy instruction and curricula, especially in identifying and helping struggling students in the early grades. This has tremendous consequences for kids. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study of children from low-income households, third-grade reading performance is strongly associated with social skills — and those third graders struggling with reading tend to struggle with school discipline issues two years later. This is one reason why young black men who are high-school dropouts had a two-to-one risk of landing in prison by age 34, according to Princeton University researcher Bruce Western and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington in their 2004 study — and why high school dropouts made up 40 percent of all first-time inmates in state prisons in 1999 (and even higher when one adds former dropouts who attained General Education Development certificates).
Cody also attempts to recycle one of his earlier arguments: That teachers are not the most-important factor in student achievement. He bases this argument on the generally held assertion (originating from the famed Coleman study) that schools only account for 40 percent of student achievement — and that teachers account for half the impact. But Cody fails to admit is that many researchers think that the percentage may actually be understated and that the role of both schools and teachers on student achievement is even greater than can be quantified. Spyros Konstantopoulos of Northwestern University pointed out in his 2005 meta-analysis that teacher quality may have a much-larger impact on student achievement in areas such as mathematics and science, largely because those are subjects more-likely to be learned by students in school than at home. Another study, co-written in 1998 by Value-Added godfather Eric Hanushek, John F. Kain and Stephen Rivkin, noted that the impact of teachers on achievement could easily be underestimated largely because of grade variation in teacher quality, errors that may be inherent in the tests used at the time, and the problems of using lower-bound estimates. Given the growing evidence that low-performing students with three consecutive high-quality teachers will make gains in achievement, Cody can’t just wish away the importance of high-quality teaching (or excuse laggards who perpetuate educational malpractice on poor kids).
Then Cody makes the rather simplistic statement that family income levels have a tendency to correlate with student achievement. As Dropout Nation Contributing Editor (and research czar for the Schott Foundation for Public Education) Michael Holzman has noted, simply pointing to this tendency tells little about why, and more importantly, ignores the reality that there are schools and entire states where poor kids are achieving at the same levels as middle-class peers. More importantly, by simply arguing that poverty is destiny, Cody ignores the reality that the real problem of poverty lies with Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling, and outdated practices and racialist concepts such as ability-tracking, which deny poor families (along with peers from minority backgrounds) opportunities to provide their kids with high-quality instruction, curricula and school cultures of genius.
But the biggest problem with Cody’s piece lies with its rather unjustified contention that anti-poverty programs are the long-term solutions for fighting poverty. One only needs to look at the history of government-run anti-poverty efforts, and pay attention to today’s knowledge-based economy, to understand why this version of the Poverty Myth of Education has no standing.
Starting with the Great Society programs of the 1960s, America has spent five decades pouring billions into anti-poverty efforts. If one goes back to the construction of housing projects such as Chicago’s Cabrini Green during the New Deal era, and the mother’s pensions of the Progressive Era of the first two decades of the last century, these efforts have been around for a century. Yet they have largely been failures. For example, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the greatest decline in poverty came between 1959 (when the federal government began keeping such statistics) and 1966, just when Great Society programs were being implemented. This decline in poverty had almost nothing to do with anti-poverty programs than with the strong economic growth that came after the end of World War II, when the United States was the world’s manufacturing center (and before Japan and Germany emerged from respective economic collapse), an unusual period in which high school dropouts could obtain high-skilled middle-class employment. After 1966, poverty rates has bounced around between 11 percent and 15 percent, waxing and waning with economic growth and recession.
If anything, many of the anti-poverty programs (including welfare) has helped foster what Leon Dash would call the pestilences of gang warfare, drug dealing and unwed motherhood that have plagued Black America and Latino communities. Federal welfare rules barring married women from receiving benefits, for example, is one reason why marriage among poor blacks has gone from being the norm to being extraordinarily rare since the 1950s — and why 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock.
The reason why most of these anti-poverty programs haven’t worked goes back to this reality: Short-term anti-poverty efforts ameliorate the problems, but don’t stem those issues for the long haul. After all the food stamps, the Section 8 housing, the SSIC payments, and the WIC checks, the families still remain poor. The fact that these families must deal with condescension toward from bureaucrats who dole out the benefits, along with the traditional emphasis of these programs on simply handing out dollars without any sweat equity (thus denying recipients their dignity), the corruption of politicians (who tend to use welfare programs as add-ons to their political machines), and the general inability of government to deal with the complexity of family and social issues (including the issues that end up landing in juvenile courtrooms), and one can see how anti-poverty programs are doomed to long-term failure.
Anti-poverty programs don’t address the penchant of floundering cities to ignore educational and other quality-of-life issue — and focus on doling out tax breaks to developers and propping up local bureaucracies that do little to improve life for the poor families (and dwindling number of middle class counterparts) within the city limits. This is particularly the case with Cody’s hometown of Oakland. Save for onetime Oakland mayor (and current California governor) Jerry Brown’s efforts to launch charter schools, city executives have done little to address either education or quality-of-life issues. Its soon-to-be shuttered redevelopment agency, which siphoned off dollars to the local school district, didn’t even help do much to boost quality of life; just 12 percent of the redevelopment agency’s income of $28.7 million actually went to police (and almost all of it likely to those taxpayers in the redevelopment zone). Little wonder why Oakland’s violent crime rate declined by just 13 percent (from 1,851.2 per 100,000 to 1,603.9 per 100,000) between 1985 and 2010; this compares poorly to counterparts that put more energy into addressing educational and quality of life issues such as Washington D.C. ( a 24 percent decline), and New York City (which saw its violent crime rate decline by 68 percent).
Meanwhile anti-poverty programs don’t address the real issues of low educational attainment that is at the heart of the economic segregation that perpetuates poverty. In an age in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands, high school dropouts and others who have been given low-quality education are going to be left behind economically and socially. Anti-poverty programs can help alleviate a 15 percent unemployment rate for high school dropouts age 25-and-older, but it won’t get them back into the economic and social mainstream. Education equals empowerment, and a high-quality education is what the children of these dropouts need in order to move out of poverty for the long haul.
There have been three truly successful anti-poverty efforts of the past seven decades: The federal school lunch program; the welfare reform efforts that began with the work of Wisconsin governor (and now U.S. Senate candidate) Tommy Thompson in the late 1980s (and are now being being undone by President Barack Obama in another one of his less-thoughtful efforts; and the expansion of earned income tax credit programs both at the federal and state levels. All three have worked because they are also tied to the most-important solutions to stemming poverty: Education, jobs and empowerment. Amazing things happen when kids get the nourishment they need to concentrate on learning, mothers and fathers can get job training they need to get off welfare rolls and into decent-paying jobs, and families get additional cash alongside what they earn from work to lift themselves above the poverty line.
The reality is simple: Overhauling American public education is critical to fighting poverty for the long haul. Revamping how the nation’s ed schools recruit and train aspiring teachers, for example, would help all children get the high-quality instruction that is the most-important in-school factor in student achievement. Just as importantly, reforming education can even help address the immediate problems that stem from poverty. After-school programs and extensions of the school day (and year) — the latter of which is a hallmark of the Knowledge Is Power Program and other successful schools and systems — can help poor families address child care issues by providing healthy, crime free, and nurturing environments in which kids can continue learning. Expanding high-quality school choices, including charter schools and school voucher programs, can help revive communities by bringing schools into communities that can appeal to both the poor and middle class. And Parent Trigger laws can empower poor families to take over and lead the overhaul of failure mills in their own communities (and help them take the next step of taking on other challenges in their own neighborhoods).
These reforms would especially help poor black, white and Latino men, whose underemployment and imprisonment are among the biggest contributors to economic and social poverty. Remember, the average annual income for male high school dropouts declined by 27 percent between 1973 and 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. When men don’t work, they cannot support families or be productive, active players in their communities. As seen with the 25 percent of male high school dropouts aged 35-to-54 who have never married, they are also less-likely to help build the strong two-parent households needed to help kids get into the middle class.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a need to ameliorate the immediate effects of economic poverty. This is why the earned income tax credit is one of the best anti-poverty tools that exist. It is also the reason why city governments must focus on fixing the broken windows in and other quality of life issues that make life harder for all families, especially the very poor. And there are some issues that neither schools nor government programs can adequately address. It will take a village to end rampant unwed motherhood and emphasis the importance of marriage and building strong families.
But anti-poverty programs and quality-of-life efforts aren’t going to address the reality that 1.4 million fourth-graders who are functionally illiterate are likely to drop out in eight years. More importantly, we cannot ignore the consequences of American public education’s failures on the very communities at which its schools are the center of the lives of the children who live in them. This can only be addressed by overhauling how educate all children — especially our poorest. They deserve better than last-class schools.