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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 09/19/2012

Is poverty destiny? Ideology vs. evidence in school reform

At the center of the school reform debate is the role that poverty plays in student achievement, as explained well in the following post. It was written by Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University in South Carolina. His newest book, “Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. — The Corporate Takeover of Public Education,” was recently published. A version of this post appeared on dailykos.com. This is long but worth the time.

By Paul Thomas

Science educator and activist Anthony Cody had a five-part exchange with the Gates Foundation about education reform on his Education Week blog, Living in Dialogue

These point-counterpoint posts serve well to illustrate the essential difference between Social Context Reformers, represented by Cody, and “No Excuses” Reformers, represented by the Gates Foundation:

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which...effort will result in success.
Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security.

The content and language in Cody’s and the foundation’s blogs also reveal the tension between ideology and evidence in the education reform debate.

The most distinct example of that tension came at the end of the five-part exchange when Irvin Scott included a preface to the final Gates Foundation entry, making this charge against Cody, and indirectly all Social Context Reformers:

Simply, I believe all children can learn. I believe low-income children of color can learn when they have great teachers who believe in them, and treat them with the same passion, enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that they would treat their own children. And I believe in the skill and will of teachers, provided they are given the opportunity to teach, learn and lead as true professionals. I believe in John Dewey’s insight that learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that’s what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society.
I want to believe that Mr. Cody believes this same truth about students, yet in each post he carefully marshals an assortment of facts and statistics which seems to suggest that he believes that children living in poverty cannot learn and that until the status quo changes we should lower our expectations for poor children.

Scott, on behalf of the Gates Foundation and “No Excuses” Reformers, clearly outlines the ideological — not evidence-based — positioning that is at the heart of the “No Excuses” Reform movement, which champions this enduring slogan: “Poverty is not destiny.” It shows why that narrative is more effective than the evidence-based positions of Social Context Reformers.

So then, as the United States enters the second decade of the 21st Century, is poverty destiny? The answer to this question is central to which education reform agenda the United States should embrace.

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“Is” versus “Should Not Be”: Poverty Is Destiny

Nowhere is the contrast between ideology and evidence more obvious than when we look at what Americans believe about income equity and access to opportunity in the United States as compared to actual income distribution and access to opportunity.

First, let’s consider an enduring American ideal—social mobility. Sawhill and Morton offer data revealing that in the United States, social mobility has stagnated, particularly when compared to countries that have far greater social mobility than the United States (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Canada, and Sweden, for example).

The short answer, then, to whether or not poverty is destiny in the Unite States is “yes.” In fact, all categories of socioeconomic status in the United States are primarily static. In other words, the majority of people in the United States remain in the social class of their birth.

Poverty is destiny, and affluence is destiny in the United States. And these facts have almost nothing to do with the effort of anyone in those categories.

This is the statistical norm in the United States: Each of us is destined to the class of our parents. Those who are socially mobile upward are outliers, and to promote social policy based on the claim that “poverty is not destiny” is to make an ideological claim that has no basis in evidence. And worse, it makes an unwarranted implication that normal outcomes are somehow the result of inherent flaws in the majority of people who live their lives in the class into which they were born.

Why, then, do the ideological claims of “No Excuses” Reformers resonate with the public against the weight of evidence?

Sawhill and Morton show that the American public holds unique beliefs about equity that contrast significantly with most other countries. Americans disproportionately believe that the United States is a meritocracy (people are rewarded for intelligence, skill, and effort), but reject the notion that people need to start with privilege in order to succeed, that income inequity is too large, and that government should help alleviate opportunity inequities.

Further, Norton and Ariely explain the contrast between American ideology and the evidence:

Most scholars agree that wealth inequality in the United States is at historic highs, with some estimates suggesting that the top 1% of Americans hold nearly 50% of the wealth, topping even the levels seen just before the Great Depression in the 1920s (Davies, Sandstrom, Shorrocks, & Wolff, 2009; Keister, 2000; Wolff, 2002)....First, our results demonstrate that Americans appear to drastically underestimate the current level of wealth inequality, suggesting they may simply be unaware of the gap. Second, just as people have erroneous beliefs about the actual level of wealth inequality, they may also hold overly optimistic beliefs about opportunities for social mobility in the United States (Benabou & Ok, 2001; Charles & Hurst, 2003; Keister, 2005), beliefs which in turn may drive support for unequal distributions of wealth. Third, despite the fact that conservatives and liberals in our sample agree that the current level of inequality is far from ideal, public disagreements about the causes of that inequality may drown out this consensus (Alesina & Angeletos, 2005; Piketty, 1995). Finally, and more broadly, Americans exhibit a general disconnect between their attitudes toward economic inequality and their self-interest and public policy preferences (Bartels, 2005; Fong, 2001), suggesting that even given increased awareness of the gap between ideal and actual wealth distributions, Americans may remain unlikely to advocate for policies that would narrow this gap.

Thus,to state that poverty (and affluence) is not destiny in the United States is to refuse to acknowledge the weight of evidence in the school reform debate.

Yet Social Context Reformers who rely on evidence to back up their positions are having trouble getting their message to resonate with the public. Why? Because anevidence-based message challenges long-held social beliefs and it is far more complicated than bumper-sticker slogans.

Scott’s charge against Cody and Social Context Reformers is unwarranted since no educators or scholars are fatalistic about the potential for all children to learn. But Social Context Reformers are sending a nuanced and ideologically uncomfortable message: Poverty is destiny in the United States, but poverty should not be destiny in the United States.

Not only are the lives of children trapped in these inequities, but our schools, burdened for three decades by “No Excuses” Reform, reflect and perpetuate that inequity.

Teachers as Scapegoats: The Bipartisan Distraction

On the heels of Cody’s series with the Gates Foundation, the United States witnessed a strike by Chicago teachers. Across the United States, key narratives and policy patterns have included eradicating teacher evaluation and pay based on experience and levels of education in order to implement evaluation and pay systems weighted heavily toward test-based data.

The weight of evidence about the impact of teacher quality on measurable student outcomes shows that teacher quality is dwarfed by out-of-school factors, and the evidence on value-added methods of determining teacher quality is not valid.

Yet, “No Excuses” Reformers erroneously identify the need to increase teacher quality as the most urgent area in need of reform through policies that are ideologically appealing to the public but refuted by evidence.Yes, teacher quality matters, but it is not close to being the first area in need of reform.

In the heat of the Chicago teachers’ strike, Alex Kotlowitz posed a rare, evidence-based argument in The New York Times:

“In Chicago, 87 percent of public school students come from low-income families — and as if to underscore the precarious nature of their lives, on the first day of the strike, the city announced locations where students could continue to receive free breakfast and lunch. We need to demand the highest performances from our teachers while we also grapple with the forces that bear down on the lives of their students, from families that have collapsed under the stress of unemployment to neighborhoods that have deteriorated because of violence and disinvestment. And we can do that both inside and outside the schools — but teachers can’t do it alone.”

But, again, his recognition about the weight of poverty (it is destiny) and that education is not powerful enough to overcome that burden (poverty should not be destiny) requires the public to reject not only the narratives of political leaders and “No Excuses” Reformers, but also entrenched cultural ideals about American exceptionalism (admitting instead that the United States is less equitable and has less social mobility than many other countries) and the American meritocracy.

The American meritocracy remains an ideal worth believing in and working for, and Social Context Reformers embrace that goal while also holding fast to the faith that public education can be a powerful mechanism for achieving equity among all humans regardless of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation.

And the role of universal public education in the pursuit of an American meritocracy reaches back to Thomas Jefferson’s argument for a democracy embracing education:

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. ([1817], pp. 275-276)
The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)
To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university. (p. 275)
By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)
The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)

The ideological arguments of the “No Excuses” Reformers are perpetuating inequity by ignoring the evidence and creating policy that scapegoats teachers and schools.

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