There is strong consensus that poverty is at the root of America’s education problem — not teachers or public schools. Poverty in turn, affects a child’s learning and achievement, and subsequent opportunities in life. To say that schools can overcome poverty, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested in a recent article in The Washington Post is to underestimate its intransigence, as I explained in my previous post. Tackling poverty must be part of education reform.

I won’t rehash why charter schools are not the answer or why reforms on teacher accountability and evaluation are misguided; they can be better explained in What Education Reform Never Addresses or in other articles (see Diane Ravitch’s lucid indictment of charter schools, Matthew Di Carlo’s synthesis of educational research on current reforms, or Joanne Barkan’s comprehensive expose of market-based education reform).

According to National Association of Secondary School Principals Executive Director, Dr. Gerald Tirozzi, America’s low ranking on the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results erroneously suggests our students are faring poorly compared with other countries. In fact, that misinterpretation can be more accurately attributed to America’s relatively high poverty rate. Had the report excluded schools with the highest poverty rates (calculated as students qualifying for free or reduced lunch), the U.S. would have jumped to first place. At 21.7%, the U.S. has the highest level of impoverishment, compared with other high achieving OECD countries: Finland 3.4%; Canada, 13.4%; and Japan 14.3% (some like Korea do not report these rates). See detailed comparisons when applying similar rates in It’s Poverty Not Stupid from Principal Difference.

Here is the obvious take away: poverty drags America down and is reflected in the increasing social inequality and the achievement gap. So how can it be addressed in education?

For one, schools — where children spend no more than 20% of their time — cannot be the sole or even main solution. The problem is just too big for schools to take on alone. There needs to be a combination of solutions: one more broad-based, and one more education-focused. For the former, Tina Rosenberg reported on a phenomenally successful social program called conditional cash transfers:

The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements.  The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention.  The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families.  The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow. (See full NYT article)

According to Rosenberg, the program fights poverty in two ways: 1) it gives money to the poor; and 2) in the long term, it gives children more education and better health. Known as Bolsa Familia in Brazil since early 2003, this program helped decrease the poverty rate from 22% of the population to 7%. Mexico has seen similar improvements with its program Oportunidades, with lower rates of malnutrition, anemia, stunting, maternal and infant deaths, and teen pregnancy, and with rates of children entering middle school increasing 42% and high school in rural areas by 85%. Such programs are now found in 14 countries in Latin America and 26 other countries, according to The World Bank (New Yorkers may remember a similar pilot-program by Mayor Bloomberg called Opportunity NYC that was pulled after seeing mixed results).

Though conditional cash transfers programs can impact a child’s education, it does not address the parents’ education, only their indigent struggles. In the United States, a concurrent parent education program is needed to fortify the social program. As mentioned previously, the issue of parent accountability has been completely overlooked by the current administration as well as in public discourse, but is integral to comprehensive education reform if past research is any indication. Renowned sociologist James Coleman wrote two important documents that highlighted the critical role of family. The Adolescent Society (1961) pinpointed the pervasive anti-intellectual culture of our youth that was reinforced by parents since the the mid-1900s that has led to the devaluing of educational achievement. Coleman’s second document, the 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity (better known as The Coleman Report), was the seminal report that revealed the predominance of student background over school-based variables as resources, teachers, or social composition. Since then, advocates have bemoaned the absence of adequate emphasis on parents and families, despite countless empirical studies of the middling effects of charter schools, merit pay, or unreliable measures for teacher effectiveness. Sociologist Jonathan Cole of Columbia University summarized:

…the key to changing educational outcomes lies not only in the schools but also in our homes. It is distressing to see critics of parent’s lack of effort in instilling the value of knowledge and education in their children get kicked in the face for their criticism. Until we can transform the relative value families place on educational achievement, efforts to reform the curricula and the types of teachers in the schools, while marginally making a difference, are not apt to do much to cure the larger educational maladies that we suffer from. (See full article here)

Teacher Amy Weisberg echoes my thoughts in her article If We Want to Fix Education, Start at the Beginning: “Parents must be held responsible for meeting their children’s basic needs and supporting their children in their educational program. We need to teach those who do not know, how to become better parents [emphasis added], in order to provide a supportive home environment that complements the educational program. Parenting is a life long responsibility and providing education and training for parents can have a positive impact on our students.”

What better way to get to disadvantaged students than through educating their parents? Along with public social support, they will be given that second chance to start their child off right — before the child is even born. Yes, not just parent education, but a prenatal one, where poor mothers-to-be can be more easily reached through hospitals and free clinics. This is the crucial period where parental attitudes and mindset can be affected, not when the child is already 3 years old. Skills and knowledge that middle class parents take for granted, that surprisingly, many in poverty are simply unaware of, such as:

  • Good nutrition
  • Creating a rich environment for your child to grow up in
  • Reading to them from Day 1
  • Setting limits
  • Developing habits of mind
  • The dangers of

The goal of parent education? To develop school-ready children. Talk about creating educational equality and leveling the playing field. These two components will go a long way in eradicating poverty from schools.

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3 comments untill now

  1. This is a great article (post) and I am flattered that you quoted me and referred others to my post. It is such a relevant and important topic. I will be exploring it more, and especially the parent education aspect of early education.

  2. Norman Eng

    Looking forward to reading more of your work – I will do the same!

  3. Good reading! will be back.

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