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Posted at 02:00 AM ET, 05/20/2011

Missing the point on poverty and reform — again

When I saw that Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, was going to be one of five members of a school reform Town Hall discussion, I assumed that the issue of poverty and how it affects students would be on the agenda.

After all, the zone is famous for its cradle to college wrap-around services for the zone’s poor residents, which are designed in part to relieve health, social and other problems common among families living in poverty so that they can thrive and students can learn. After all, the vast majority of the students who live in the zone do not attend the charter schools Canada has set up but rather traditional public schools in Harlem. A huge percentage of them go to college, which Canada links to the after-school tutoring and other services his zone provides.

Why wouldn’t the other participants -- Rep. George Miller (D- Ca), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Col), and Deputy Education Secretary Anthony Miller sitting in for for his boss, the ailing Arne Duncan -- want to talk to Canada about what is working and not working in his zone?

Well, they didn’t, and for 1 1/2 hours earlier this month at George Washington University, we heard Christie bemoan teachers unions (as usual), and George Miller say that No Child Left Behind -- which he helped pass in 2001 -- had to be changed but was important, and Bennett talk about how government agencies need to coordinate better with outside groups to provide services for students, and yada yada.

Nobody, not even the moderator, Jessica Yellin, national political correspondent for CNN, mentioned that about 21 percent of America’s children, or about 15 million kids -- live in poverty as it is defined by the government -- now pegged at an annual income of $22,050 a year for a family of four.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, research shows that on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses, which under this standard, would place 42% of American children in low-income families.

A report released last week on the 2010 civics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress taken by nationally representative groups of kids in grades 4, 8 and 12, said that 41 percent of fourth-graders were eligible for free lunch and 6 percent were eligible reduced price lunch. That means that 47 percent qualified for the National School Lunch Program, which is seen as an indicator of low income. Among eighth graders, 36 percent were eligible for free lunch (a 5 percentage point increase from 2006) and 7 percent were eligible for reduced-price lunch, for a total of 43 percent. Figures for 12th grade weren’t provided.

Probably the only thing of any substance anybody on the panel said about the issue was when Anthony Miller noted that while it was important to engage parents in their child’s education and school, “we can’t design an education system” that depends on it, because some parents just aren’t able to engage or won’t.

In the current climate, anybody who raises the issue of how poverty affects students runs the risk of being labeled as:

*a defender of the status quo

*someone who uses poverty as an excuse for bad teachers who are protected by bad teachers unions

*someone who believes that certain kids cannot learn as well as other kids.

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 .

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 1600) or 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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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the maximum score on the SAT test. The maximum score is currently 2400 but it was 1600 when the research was conducted.

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