“While education has been envisioned as the great equalizer, this promise has been more myth than reality,” conclude Coley and Baker in a new report, Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward (ETS, July 2013).
This data-rich examination of the relationship between education and poverty, both in the US and how that compares internationally, is yet another solid refuting of shallow slogans—”poverty is not destiny,” “no excuses”—and the entire accountability era built on policies that do not address well equity—standards and high-stakes testing, charter schools, Teach for America, value-added methods of evaluating teachers.
Detailing the report here would only lessen the power of the report itself, which I urge you to read, and to share widely.
But some of the key points in the Executive Summary are worthy of highlighting now:
The challenges illustrated in the report represent systemic and structural inequalities that are particularly challenging in the current economic climate. Yet these challenges point the way toward strategies for moderating the influence of poverty on educational outcomes. We offer strategies in seven areas that are within the purview of education policymakers.
- Increasing awareness of the incidence of poverty and its consequences. Child poverty costs the United States hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Current poverty levels, combined with the growing wealth gap between those at the top and bottom of the distribution, threaten to destabilize our democracy and limit the upward mobility of children of future generations.
- Equitably and adequately funding our schools. The economic downturn has taken a toll on state school funding and on targeted programs like preschool that can help disadvantaged children. There is a need for better coordination of federal and state education programs targeted at poverty.
- Broadening access to high-quality preschool education. High-quality early childhood education programs improve the educational outcomes of all children, but particularly for low-income children. The administration’s proposed major expansion of preschool programs across the country should be supported.
- Reducing segregation and isolation. Many of the nation’s schools are increasingly segregated by race/ethnicity and income. Each student should have the opportunity to attend schools with peers from diverse social and economic backgrounds.
- Adopting effective school practices. School policies that have been documented by research and practice to be effective should be broadly adopted. Examples include class size reduction, longer school days and years, and tutoring.
- Recognizing the importance of a high-quality teacher workforce. Attracting and keeping high-quality teachers in high-poverty classrooms should be of the utmost priority and may require special incentives.
- Improving the measurement of poverty. The poverty rate is an important social and economic indicator that is used to allocate resources for scores of federal, state, and local programs. Work should continue to expand the official definition of income to include government spending directed at low-income families and to recognize cost-of-living differences across regions.
As we read and share this report, then, we must also be vigilant about our messages:
- US social inequity is historically entrenched and increasing. An affluent birth trumps nearly all other factors, including any child’s or adult’s drive, gifts, or educational attainment.
- The accident of any child’s birth tends strongly to determine that child’s access to both social and educational opportunities—affluence provides high quality social and educational opportunities; poverty leads to low quality social and educational opportunities.
- School and teacher quality is unlikely alone to overcome social inequities, but that does not absolve public education of reforming immediately the many mechanisms of inequity within schools—many of which are perpetuated and even created by current reform initiatives such as charter schools (segregation), high-stakes testing (race, class, and gender biased), and TFA (targeting impoverished children, mostly African American and Latina/Latino, with uncertified and inexperienced recruits).
- Education reform must be a subset of social reform, and both must be driven by goals of equity and opportunity (not mechanisms of accountability linked to standards and test scores).