Missing the point on poverty and reform — again
None of those are true.
Authentic reform must include addressing the very real health and emotional and social issues that kids bring with them to school every day, often getting in the way of their ability to focus on geometry, read and analyze a novel or take a standardized test. Canada knows this.
Pretending poverty doesn't matter doesn't mean it doesn't matter.
Extending the school day, and making kids take more standardized tests, and making sure that kids in California and Maine are taught to the same common standards won’t help kids who are hungry and sick and need glasses and don’t feel that their school environment is safe.
Reformers who ignore such pesky details can't succeed.
Is it possible that some kids can succeed despite the odds? Of course some do. But as I've said before, the exceptions don't make the rule, or good policy.
Duncan’'s Education Department has funded a number of programs called Promise Neighborhoods based on the HCZ, but the financial and rhetorical thrust of their reform program has been around common standards and standardized tests and promoting charter schools, not confronting poverty’s very real toll on kids.
There has been a great deal written on this by scholars (including this post I published last year). A new voice on the subject is that of Michael Marder, a professor at the University of Texas in the Physics Department and co-director of the UTeach program, which trains secondary school math and science teachers.
He has been looking at school data in Texas and has concluded that teacher quality is not, in fact, the most significant factor affecting student achievement.
What is? Poverty, he said, in an interview with me, and separately, in an interview with the Texas Tribune, which has posted this video of Marder.
One of the data sets he investigated were the scores of all Texas students taking the SAT and ACT college admissions tests over a number of years. He found that there was not a single school where 80 percent of the students were on free and reduced price lunch and more than 20 percent who were ready for college out of state based on a 1110 or above SAT score (out of a possible 2400) for a 24 ACT score (out of a possible 36).
Marder adds that he believes all kids can succeed, but the conditions have to be right, and pretending that a life in poverty doesn’t have a negative impact on the ability to learn is wishful thinking.
This is not an argument that teachers aren’t important. Of course they are. And of course bad teachers shouldn’t be in the classroom. Nobody knows this better than good teachers. But our obsession with teacher quality doesn’t leave room for other discussions (as Bennett noted during the panel discussion).
After the panel discussion was over, I asked Canada why the issue of poverty wasn’t discussed. He said there was one obvious opportunity for him to bring it up, but he deliberately didn’t because he didn’t want the entire event to become about the Harlem Children’s Zone.
"I would be the first to say that this is absolutely essential to help those kids achieve," he said.
He should have. And it is only fair to ask why nobody else brought it up either.
Until we do, much of what constitutes school reform with the aim of helping troubled schools in high-poverty areas won’t see real, sustainable success.
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