Last week I wrote a post about Bill Gates
who, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to improve education with minimal success, has begun to learn how much he still has to learn about education. And to his credit, he's beginning to look at poverty as an underlying problem with lots of moving parts, education being one of them.
Toward the end of that post I wrote a few sentences, almost a throwaway, about the relation between education and poverty.
"Education is not an effective way to fix the country's problems related to poverty when it's working by itself. But lessening the burdens of poverty is the best way there is to improve student achievement, and it's even more effective when schools improve as well."
Let me pick up that idea and expand on it.
If we're looking at schools as a primary engine to lift children out of poverty, we're looking in the wrong place. Education is necessary to facilitate greater economic mobility, but it's far from sufficient.
You hear a lot of people say, "Failing schools are the problem." If we just fix our schools, they say — improve the curriculum, get rid of bad teachers, create charters, privatize schools — that's the best way to lift children out of poverty. But it isn't. What it is, is the best way to delay dealing with the root causes of poverty.
Trying to address poverty by improving schools is the rough equivalent of seeing a problem, then creating a committee to study it.
Here's how study committees often work. A group of very serious people get together and spend a few years kicking a topic around. They gather information, call in experts, look at the problem from a number of angles. Then the group publishes a very serious report long after the heat which was the reason the committee was set up has cooled. The report is analyzed and critiqued by some other very serious people, then it's shelved. That's it. No action, no results. Study committees are the place where ideas go to die.
Here's how educational "reforms" which are supposed to help children rise out of poverty usually work. The "reforms" are put in place with fanfare and high hopes, but no one expects to see results right away. It takes a number of years for children to work their way though the educational system before we can measure whether the "reforms" yielded any results. Five years, ten years, twenty years down the line, researchers plow through piles of data and try to measure the effects. Depending on how researchers parse the data and which variables they emphasize, they find students gained or lost a little ground due to the changes. The needle rarely moves very far one way or another in terms of student achievement or improving students' economic mobility.
So we begin anew with another round of "reforms" which are supposed to fix our "failing schools" and move children out of poverty. We wait a number of years, study the results and start over again. Rinse and repeat, ad infinitum.
No Child Left Behind. Charter schools. Vouchers. Blended learning. Common Core. Changes in methods for teaching reading and math. Education innovations come, educational innovations go, they work a little, they don't work at all. If poverty and economic mobility rates budge in the interim, it has far more to to with outside economic and social forces than with what's going on in schools.
Who are the most enthusiastic proponents of those study committees? They tend to be people who want to keep things exactly as they are, people who benefit from the status quo. They measure the success of the committee by how little happens to address the problem it was created to study.
So who benefits most from maintaining that fixing our "failing schools" is the best way to lift children out of poverty, effectively kicking the can down the road a decade or two? I'll give my answer at the end of the post.
Meanwhile, let's look at the relationship between poverty and education.
Have studies conducted over the past fifty years shown educational changes in this country have moved the poverty needle substantially? If so, they don't come readily to mind. But virtually every study looking at the correlation between income and educational achievement in this country and around the world conclude there's a strong correlation between the two. It's the closest thing educators have to something we know for certain: children from families with higher incomes tend to do better in school and on achievement tests than students from families with lower incomes. And it's not just a rich vs. poor thing. It's incremental. Put family income on one axis of a graph and student achievement on the other, and the result is a line gradually sloping upwards.
So what would happen to student achievement if we took schools out of the equation — left them as they are — and used other strategies to move families out of poverty? I can't cite a study here, so I'm going to take a small intellectual leap and say, as you remove some of the conditions which make the lives of families living in poverty so onerous, the children in those families will tend to become better students. As incomes rise and problems associated with poverty lessen, students' educational achievement will increase even if the schools they attend don't change appreciably. The students will, in a sense, change the schools, making them look more successful.
Poverty is about more than family income. It's a collection of conditions. Also important, along with living on a limited income, are a family's lack of access to health care, proper nutrition, a comfortable, stable, toxicity-free living situation and personal safety. For children, it often means growing up in a home without the kind of school-related educational resources and experiences children from higher income families have available to them. Each of those problems adds to the difficulty children have being attentive and learning effectively. As you remove them, you increase the chances of children being more successful in school.
The relation between students' anxiety levels and their levels of attentiveness in school has been getting a fair amount of academic attention lately. The basic notion is pretty intuitive. When children are distracted, they're less likely to give their full attention to their teachers or their school work. Teaching a classroom full of children, helping them learn at full capacity, is difficult enough under the best of circumstances. If the students' minds are elsewhere, it's close to impossible.
It's true of any of us, not just children. If we're hungry or ill or have a toothache or are worried about something that happened this morning or is likely to happen in the future, part of our minds are going to be elsewhere, focused on those other problems rather than on the matter at hand.
If children haven't slept well or eaten well, have health issues, are worried about the safety and well being of a parent or sibling, or their own safety and well being, school lessons simply aren't going to be as important to them as they would be if they were less distracted. All childen have heads and bodies filled with distractions to take their minds off schoolwork, but poverty creates its own categories of physical and psychological problems and anxieties which pile up on top of the others. If we lessen or remove some of those poverty-related problems, children will have a better shot at paying attention and progressing in school.
What are some ways to lessen problems related to poverty which get in the way of students realizing their educational potential? It's a long list.
Raising a family's income to move them above the poverty level is a big deal. We can raise the minimum wage to a living wage, or we can create a guaranteed income, to name a few approaches. There are lots of possible fixes.
At the same time, we can make sure everyone has access to quality, low cost housing so they can use a part of their income to create a safe, stable living environment for themselves and their families.
We can also focus specifically on the children's needs. Every pregnant woman should have access to good prenatal care so children begin their lives as healthy as possible. Universal health care should continue the infant's access to medical attention, and it's most effective when combined with social services which will make the care readily and easily available. High quality early childhood education should be available for all children so they have the opportunity to develop their educational and social skills before they enter kindergarten. And medical and social services should be embedded into K-12 schools so children continue to have access to the kinds of services more affluent families take for granted.
The more anti-poverty boxes are checked, the better the lives of children and their families will be. I honestly believe children who live in improved living situations will become improved students, raising their school achievement simply because they have the heaviest burdens of poverty lifted from their shoulders. Of course, I could be wrong. I don't think so, but I could be. Maybe their improved living situations wouldn't make them better students after all. But they would still have improved living situations, and that would be a wonderful thing all by itself. It is shameful that a society as wealthy as ours has so many people, children and adults, living in poverty. It doesn't have to be that way.
The problem is, all this would cost a lot of money. A whole lot of money. And that's a huge problem. That money has to come from somewhere, and the only reasonable "somewhere" is the pocketbooks of the richest among us. We're talking about an increase in income redistribution on a massive scale, moving money from the top one percent, and especially the top one-tenth of one percent, back to the rest of society. Instead of getting the tax breaks the wealthiest of the wealthy love and have come to expect in recent years, they would have to deal with an increased tax bite. And most of them wouldn't like that. They can afford it. They've never been richer, at least since the gilded age, and making them pay more would only lessen the scandalous and dangerous levels of economic inequality in our society. They'd still have more money than they and their families could spend in many lifetimes. But they wouldn't like it.
So, back to the question I posed earlier. Who benefits most from pushing the idea that fixing our "failing schools" is the best way to lift children out of poverty? It's the people who would have to do the monetary heavy lifting to create the programs we would need to deal with the problems of poverty head on. Better to continue pushing the "It's the schools" meme and kick the can down the road a decade or two, at which time you can say "It's still the schools" and give the can another kick, than to promote more effective, and far more costly, solutions.
You may have noticed a strange phenomenon, that many hundred-millionaires and billionaires who lean a bit to the left are big "education reform" promoters along with their fellow fat cats on the other side of the political spectrum. It's one of those moments when billionaires on both sides of the aisle join hands.
When it comes to a battle between politics and pocketbooks, most rich people choose their pocketbooks. The billionaire's "education reform" kumbaya has less to do with what's best for the poor children they say they want to help than with protecting their own bottom lines. And the ultra-rich have as much money as it takes to promote their self serving agendas, to convince the the politicians who depend on them for funding (and a sizable part of the electorate) that it's not poverty that causes poverty. It's those failing schools.