The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Public education’s biggest problem keeps getting worse

Public education’s biggest problem just keeps getting worse.

No, it’s not “bad” teachers or “bad” students or “bad”
parents or “bad” principals.

It’s this, from this story by my colleague Lyndsey Layton:

A majority of students in public schools throughout the American South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades, according to a new study that details a demographic shift with broad implications for the country.
The analysis by the Southern Education Foundation, the nation’s oldest education philanthropy, is based on the number of students from preschool through 12th grade who were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program in the 2010-11 school year. …
Children from those low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states with the largest populations in 2011, researchers found. A decade earlier, just four states reported poor children as a majority of the student population in their public schools. [see graph below]

Nationally, 22 percent of children in the richest country in the world (and in the history of the world) live at or below the federal poverty line — but that’s not the worst of it. Nearly half  live in low-income families that struggle to meet basic needs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For years now, federal educational policy has largely ignored the issue of poverty, with too many school reformers  arguing that citing the effects of living in poverty as a big 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? Well, the U.S. 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.

In his new book, called “Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty,” George Mason University Professor Paul C. Gorski writes that students from poor families continue, on average, to be subjected to what Jonathan Kozol called 20 years ago the “savage inequalities of schooling.” In the following passage (from which I have removed all sources he included), Gorski wrote about how the bromide that “education is the great equalizer” is not really true:

Education is the great equalizer. That’s what I heard growing up, the son of a mother from poor Appalachian stock and a father from middle class Detroit. If you work hard, do well in school, and follow the rules, you can be anything you want to be. It’s a fantastic idea. How remarkable it would be if only it were true …
Unfortunately, schools as they are not constituted today are not the equalizers they are cracked up to to be. … The examples of these inequalities are numerous. Poor students are assigned disproportionately to the most inadequately funded schools with the largest class sizes and lowest paid teachers. They are more likely than their wealthier peers to be bullied  and to attend school in poorly maintained buildings. They are denied access to the sorts of school resources and opportunities other children take for granted, such as dedicated school nurses, well-stocked school libraries, and engaging pedagogies. In fact, by these and almost every other possible measure, students from poor families, the ones most desperate to find truth in the  “great equalizer” promise, appear to pay a great price for their poverty, even at school. 

It’s no surprise, then, that according to a new study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, schools with a high percentage of students from families who live in poverty sent fewer graduates to colleges in 2012 than schools with a high percentage of higher-income schools.

And until school reform puts alleviating some of the effects of living in poverty into their school improvement plans, they will be doomed to fail, because blaming ineffective teachers (of which there are, for sure, many), and low expectations (of which there are, certainly, many), and low standards (of which there  have been) and dysfunctional parents (of  which there are many) will simply not do anything to help kids who are hungry, sick, tired and stressed to learn how to multiply and divide. Kids who live in homes without books or with parents with little education are behind academically from the day they set foot in a school, whatever their age. Piling one high-stakes standardized test after another on them to measure their academic progress, and their teachers’ value, and their principals’ worth, is counterproductive.

In her Post article, Layton quotes Richard Rothstein, a senior fellow at the Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, as saying that the focus of modern school reform has been all wrong.

If you take children who come to school from families with low literacy, who are not read to at home, who have poor health — all these social and economic problems — and just say that you’re going to test children and have high expectations and their achievement will go up, it doesn’t work. It’s a failure.

With all of the billions of dollars spent on school reform, the fact is that public education’s biggest problem keeps getting worse. Because it keeps getting ignored.