By Jack Schneider and Heather Curl
Most educational policy elites, whether in government or in the nonprofit sector, mean well. They pursue careers in education, rather than in business, because they want to help children, and because they believe in the power of schools to promote opportunity. Certainly there are exceptions to the rule; entrepreneurial third-parties, for instance, are often more interested in making a buck than in making a difference. On the whole, however, education is a field of good intentions.
Yet policymakers tend to come from a relatively privileged slice of American society. And they tend to possess a set of beliefs and assumptions distinct to their background. This is not, in every instance, a significant problem. Effective budgeting practices, for example, are likely to look the same regardless of a person’s upbringing and experience. But in most cases, the fact that decision-makers inhabit a different world from students—and particularly, poor students—is a matter of great significance.
The primary way this translates into practice is through the belief that the poor need only better jobs to lead better lives. Teach them how to read, write, and compute, policymakers insist, and they will have access to higher-paying and higher-status careers. In short, they believe that the problem of poverty is a problem of dollars and cents. And in part it is. But the problem is also much greater than that.
Poverty limits opportunity in all senses. It restricts career paths, as policymakers recognize. But it also denies young people equal time, resources, and exposure to discover their interests and foster their passions. It constrains lives.
Schools, of course, did not create this problem. But they do exacerbate it. Over the past decade, well-intended policymakers concerned with closing the achievement gap have promoted policies and practices that reduce learning to something easily quantified. Consequently, high-poverty schools have had their missions curtailed dramatically. The curriculum has narrowed. Testing—and practice for test-taking—consumes an inordinate amount of time, taking the place of arts and athletic programs. And “no excuses” discipline practices adopted in many schools have promoted militant and controlling learning environments.
Even if we assumed that such practices would get students better jobs—a huge assumption—we should be skeptical merely of the fact that high poverty schools have never looked less like the schools where elite policymakers send their own children. President Obama, we might recall, sends his daughters to the private Sidwell Friends School, which recently built a multimillion dollar performing arts complex. And it doesn’t bombard its students with high-stakes standardized tests.
Those of us who have lived alongside the poor—in solidarity, or as a product of our own poverty—know and love individuals with great capacity for knowledge, wonder, and vision. But we also know that the fullest realization of their capacities has routinely been denied. Certainly we have watched some of our friends, neighbors, and family members succeed in a variety of ways. Some of the more fortunate among them have climbed out of poverty into the middle class. Others have succeeded in different ways, thinking creatively about survival while continuing to challenge structures that systematically hold them back. Yet we have also watched many of them confront unparalleled challenges and sink beneath that weight. They have struggled to provide for themselves and their families. And equally troubling, they have been unable to follow their passions or explore what compels them as human beings.
Again, schools are not to blame for the problem of poverty. Liability rests with our entire society, and it is a problem in which we are all implicated. But education has a powerful role to play in combating poverty and its various manifestations. Not just by exposing children to career-advancing skills, but also by exposing them to a full range of potential interests and pursuits, by affording time and resources to discover what they care for and what they are good at, and by supporting creative thinking and creative action.
Our best schools are places where children learn about the world and begin to imagine life beyond their neighborhoods. They are places where the arts are valued and pursued—where children learn to draw and dance and play the piano, as well as to understand a poem or a painting or a piece of music. They are places where ideas are sought and explored—for the purpose of expanding young people’s notions of justice, broadening their visions of the possible, and welcoming them into ongoing cultural conversations. Our best schools are places where children gain confidence in themselves, build healthy relationships, and develop values congruent with their own self-interest. They are places of play and laughter and discovery.
Policymakers strive for something less in their work to improve our nation’s poorest schools—not because their intentions are bad, but because they see the poor differently than they see their own children. As such, they have promoted a narrow vision for improvement focused entirely on quantifiable gains in the core content areas. Concerned only with the cultivation of ostensibly job-oriented knowledge and skills, they have neglected everything else that makes schools great. Policy elites defend their work and attack their critics as misguided, out of touch, or concerned only with adult interests. Yet how many would send their own children to schools where narrow standards have driven out play and discovery? How many so-called reformers would enroll their children in schools where young people are endlessly assessed, where the arts have been slashed, where teachers have been demoralized, and where the shame of low scores is borne like a scarlet letter?
Reformers need to understand that their narrow efforts to close the quantifiable “achievement gap” are creating another kind of educational inequity. In other words, as they seek to close one gap they are opening up another.
This is not to say that content is irrelevant or assessment unhelpful. Content matters deeply, and it is essential for structuring so much work in schools—from art education to discussions about social justice. And assessment provides teachers, administrators, and parents with critical information about student progress.
Additionally, this is in no way meant to imply that seeding great schools is easy work. There is almost nothing so complex as a school environment, and cultivating a positive one is a life’s labor for an entire community. Making matters far more complicated is the fact that high-poverty schools simply have so much more work to do than low-poverty schools. As long as we accept segregation by income, some schools will face greater challenges and longer uphill climbs.
But we need not accept a narrower vision of what it means to educate. We need not accept schools focused myopically on basic skills to the exclusion of all else.
For contemporary education reformers, improving test scores is the only measure of school quality that matters. And they have had some modest successes in this regard. Yet they have merely reshuffled the deck. While they have drawn increasing attention to the testable aspects of a few core content areas, they have diverted interest and resources away from the rest of the educational program. This has had a profound effect on the lived experience of young people in schools. But reformers, insulated as they are from the world of the poor, haven’t felt the difference. In fact, many have even pointed to their work as evidence that high poverty schools need less money than their advocates claim. What they need, reformers argue, is a hotter fire under the feet of increasingly vulnerable teachers and administrators.
Today’s school reformers are neither malicious nor thoughtless. They are merely oblivious. And it is up to allies of the poor to change that. Not by shouting reformers down, labeling them all ideologues, or accusing them of profiteering. But rather, by helping them to see what they cannot.
It took policy elites most of the 20th Century to figure out that poor children can learn. Now they need to realize that poor children can do other things, as well. Yes, they need smart teachers and strong content. And yes, their academic progress should be tracked to ensure that they are on course in developing core competencies. But more generally, poor children need access to the same kind of deeply human present and multidimensional future that we all wish for our own children. That should be our rallying cry. That should be our highest aim.