The biggest scandal in America

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To listen to the discourse in Washington, you might think that the worst scandal in America right now is Benghazi or the Internal Revenue Service or the Obama administration’s leak investigations or  the now not-so-secret U.S. surveillance programs conducted by the secretive National Security Agency. Or some might choose the frightening state of disrepair into which we’ve allowed the nation’s infrastructure to fall. (A 2013 report says that America’s cumulative GPA for infrastructure rose this year to a D+ — and that it would take $3.7 trillion by 2020 to fix.) And the country’s refusal to deal substantively with climate change is a biggest-scandal contender (though this is not a problem exclusive to this country).

Yet, the scandal that beats them all, in my view, is this:  22 percent of children in the richest country in the history of the world live at or below the federal poverty line — and if it weren’t bad enough that more than 1 in five American children live at or below the federal poverty line,  nearly half live in low-income families that struggle to meet basic needs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Did you get that? Nearly half live in families that struggle to meet basic needs.

There are many ramifications for this  in the realm of public education. Because public schools are largely funded by property taxes, schools in high-poverty areas have fewer resources. Federal dollars appropriated to help close the gap don’t come close. Furthermore, if there is anything that education research has shown consistently and conclusively, it is that student achievement is linked to the socioeconomic level of families. Students who attend low-poverty schools do well on international test scores, as well as students in any other country.

Unfortunately, for years federal educational policy has largely ignored the issue of poverty, with many school reformers actually arguing that citing the effects of living in poverty as an obstacle to achievement in school is “an excuse.” Schools, they say, can overcome poverty and, further, students living in poverty in other countries do well on tests, don’t they? Actually, the poverty rate is higher — and has been for many years — than in any industrialized country that participates in international tests, and people who are poor in America stay that way longer than anywhere else in the industrialized world. Research shows that it is harder for children to climb out of poverty the longer they are in it.

Yet reformers find everything else to blame — ineffective teachers (of which there are, for sure, many), and low expectations (of which there are, certainly, many), and low standards (of which there are, unfortunately, many). Let’s throw bad parents in the mix too.(There are plenty of them too). Decades of research showing the main issue to be the effects of living in poverty — poor physical and mental health, a lack of intellectual stimulation, stress, hunger, etc — are ignored.

Economist Richard Rothstein in his book, “Class and schools: Using social, economic and educational reform to close the black-white achievement gap,” wrote:

Policy makers almost universally conclude that existing and persistent achievement gaps must be the result of wrongly designed school policies — either expectations that are too low, teachers who are insufficiently qualified, curricula that are badly designed, classes  that are too large, school climates that are too undisciplined, leadership that is too unfocused, or a combination of these. Americans have come to the conclusion that the achievement gap is the fault of ‘failing schools’ because it makes no common sense that it could be otherwise … This common sense perspective, however, is misleading and dangerous. It ignores how social class characteristics in a stratified society like ours may actually influence learning.

 

That was true in 2004 when his book was published, and 10 years before that, and it is true today. A new UNICEF report on the well-being of children in 35 developed nations places the United States at No. 34 (above Romania). That’s why the American Pediatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded in a report last month that the the effects of poverty on the health and well being of young people are the biggest problem facing American children today.

Yet there is no sustained medical or policy focus on how to assess and address it. The administrations of George W. Bush, first, and then Barack Obama, instead chose to focus federal policy and dollars on high-stakes standardized tests.

And so, there you have it. The biggest scandal in America: child poverty and what isn’t being done about it.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · June 10, 2013