It’s The Poverty, Stupid

By Diann Woodard, AFSA President

The urgent call for radical changes to public education being trumpeted by business leaders is predicated on the assertion that America’s public schools are literally failing. The evidence insistently offered in support of their missionary zeal is the “fact” that U.S. students lag far behind students internationally.

While there is ample cause for concern about the performance of children in our schools, the argument of the business-model reformers that the American system of public education is “failing” is a half-truth, which is worse than a lie because it is intended to discredit public education by smearing the system as a whole.

All of our children are not performing worse than their foreign counterparts—quite the contrary. Indeed, a significant number of U.S. students rank first in the world in several key disciplines. The most recent results from the International Reading Literacy Study and the Trends in International Math and Science, conducted in 2006, revealed that a major group of American students ranked first in reading, first in science and third in math.

Who were these students? They were kids in U.S. schools that enjoyed a poverty rate of less than 10 percent. Even students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate rose to as high as 25 percent still ranked first in reading and science. As the percent of students in poverty in a school rises, the tests scores decline.

The problem overall is that fully 20 percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates greater than 75 percent. A 2009 study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine warned doctors to be on the lookout for signs of malnutrition, concluding that half of all children are on food stamps. Repeated studies have shown the gap in cognitive, physical and social development between children in poverty and middle-class children is set by age 3.

Rather than declaim, “It’s poverty, stupid,” the business-model reformers paint the entire system with the black brush of failure, knowing full well that socioeconomic circumstances are the core cause of lowered scores in many instances.

The fact that these reformers willfully turn a blind eye to one of the central problems undermining educators and instead blame school leaders, teachers and our unions should come as little surprise, given the source of funding for the assault on the public sector.

The Big Three of the reform movement campaign is composed of the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations, with collective endowments of $66.4 billion (The Gates Foundation treasure chest, already the largest, rose from $33 billion to $63 billion when Warren Buffet turned his $30 billion fund over to Gates to handle).

Their misbegotten condemnation of educators, coupled with their passion for charter schools, standardized tests and merit pay for teachers as solutions to the challenges facing public education are as ill-informed about the value of these approaches as is their grasp of poverty’s impact on test scores.

Stanford University’s 2009 study of charter schools, the most comprehensive to date, concluded that 83 percent of them perform either worse or no better than traditional public schools. A Vanderbilt University study published in 2010 showed definitively that merit pay for teachers does not produce higher tests scores for students. And a National Research Council report confirmed multiple studies that show standardized test scores do not measure student learning adequately.

What have the business-model reformers learned from these comprehensive studies? Absolutely nothing. Since Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Waltons cannot be mistaken for dunces, one can conclude only that theirs is a willful ignorance, a blindness to evidence born of an interest in privatizing the public school system—and they’re not about to let the facts get in their way.

The callous practices common to many charters offer further evidence of this ill intent. Students who enroll in charters in poor areas but are deemed “incompatible” with the charter’s program are cut loose as soon as state student enrollment counts have been reported.

Some of those rejected by charters return to the public system, but some, who have been encouraged to believe the public system is worthless, simply fall into a black hole of anonymity, joining a growing underclass that threatens to become permanent as the ranks of those in poverty (earning less than $22,464 annually) rises toward one-third of the U.S. population.

The hopelessness induced by the condemnation of the business-model reformers is bad enough; their monomaniacal insistence on “teacher-led” reforms is worse. School leaders, such as principals, administrators and counselors, are deemed irrelevant to their notions of reform. They imagine instead a world in which teachers become “miracle workers.”

Experienced teachers may not always agree with their principals, but they are far too seasoned to believe that they can work miracles, which is what would be required to teach children while running the business operations of the school, let alone keeping the school physically secure in environments often plagued by drugs, gang violence and the occasional hostile parent.

Principals who have standing within their communities may resist attempts to factor them out of efforts to turn around their schools, but many others labor under the misguided belief that if they “go along to get along,” they will somehow survive.

But silence is a fool’s errand in a democracy; indeed, it is the antithesis of democratic vitality, especially when powerful moneyed interests attempt to use their wealth to impose their will on public policy.

And since nurturing a more informed democracy is what our educational calling is all about, school leaders are well advised to be an example to teachers, their students and communities by standing up and fighting for a voice in advancing public education, because it’s increasingly clear the future of a public school system that serves the needs of all children is what’s at stake.