Can Schools Overcome Poverty?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote an article in  the Washington PostSchool Reform: A Chance for Bipartisan Governing, emphasizing the important role both Democrats and Republicans have in rewriting NCLB to address its “one-size-fits-all mandates, its teach-to-the-test mentality, and its lack of teacher investment. Particularly interesting was his statement that “school districts and their local partners in inner cities and rural communities are overcoming poverty and family breakdown to create high-performing schools, including charters and traditional public schools. They are taking bold steps to turn around low-performing schools by investing in teachers, rebuilding school staff, lengthening the school day and changing curricula.”

Can those bold steps for schools really overcome poverty?

I am aware of no studies that conclusively show this. The Bracey Report (2009), from the Education and the Public Interest Center and the Education Policy Research Unit, deconstructed research of programs that have claimed to close the achievement gap. On the whole, claims of schools overcoming poverty are inconclusive at best, and downright deceptive in some cases. Most success stories, like Harlem’s Promise Academy, actually show very modest improvements – gains were limited to only one year, one grade, and one subject. All this, after Promise Academy:

1) Mandated that students below grade level spend twice as much time in school as their public school counterparts;

2) Provided free medical, dental, and mental-health services and high quality nutritious cafeteria meals for its students;

3) Provided support for parents, such as food baskets, meals, bus fare, etc.; and

4) Made a concerted effort to change the culture of achievement, surrounding students with the importance of hard work in achieving success.

In other words, the student health and non-academic interventions were just as important as the academic changes. The changes holistically addressed school achievement and poverty at the same time in order to gain debatable improvement in one school, one year, one grade and one subject! CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada, of documentary Waiting for Superman fame, has invested extraordinary time and devotion (not to mention financial support from private interests), but still have difficulty making significant progress. Other evaluations of charter school progress, such as that of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (the most extensive system of vouchers and charter schools in America that matches 3,000+ students) show achievement growth comparable to local public schools. If positive results are this difficult for charter schools, how can we possibly scale such efforts for nationwide improvement?

That, of course, has been the problem: we take one “successful” small program (that spent a lot of money and time) and believe that we can scale it up to meet the needs of over 1.1 million NYC public school children, never mind a whole nation. Schools cannot overcome poverty on its own, according to education historian Diane Ravitch, who asserts that research consensus shows teachers account for merely 10 to 20 percent of achievement outcomes in her article The Myth of Charter Schools. In fact, nonschool factors matter more, she claims:

According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors such as family income. So while teachers are the most important factors within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers…it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.

This conclusion echoes the results of the seminal 1966 Coleman Report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, long buried in politically-incorrect controversy.

In the end, Arne Duncan’s educational mandate is limited; after all, his reforms can only affect what goes on in schools. For this reason the national education reform debate must include a robust nonschool component addressing poverty and family improvement. I have written more about this in my previous post, What No Education Reform Ever Addresses.

3 thoughts on “Can Schools Overcome Poverty?

  1. Ravitch is spot on about charter schools with her assessment, yet the leaders aren’t listening. When will people wake up to the fact that charter schools are not what they think? Some are good and some are bad, just like like public schools and private schools. 20% actually perform better han public schools as if that justifies all the hoopla and money being thrown to it. That leaves 80% that aren’t better!

    1. Making schools run more like businesses is not new — see Raymond Callahan’s The Cult of Efficiency. We see it everywhere from charter schools to billionaire supporters like Gates and Zuckerberg. The policymakers need to listen to more people like Ravitch!

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