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Poverty, Complexity, Responsibility, and the Soul of Education Reform

October 29, 2013 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

At first glance, poverty is an unlikely flashpoint in the great progressive debate about schools. All good progressives oppose poverty, right?

Yet to hear some people tell it, there’s a whole swath of folks out there who don’t want to improve anything about schools until we “fix” poverty. To hear others tell it, there’s a powerful bloc denying the impact of poverty on kids, families, communities, and schools. The quick way out of the question is to say, “Let’s do both at once,” and then go back to whatever else is on your agenda.

Let’s do a little more than that today.

First, the facts. Poverty matters. A lot. Toxic stress and the constant need for tough, consequential decision-making drains the brain. The effects of growing up in poverty persist into adulthood, even if one eventually moves out of poverty. All of these things hurt kids and their families, and they show up in school in lots of different ways. Test scores, behavioral problems, and on and on.

Second, the myths. It’s not about generic “family involvement” (especially since poor families tend to display more at-home involvement in their kids’ lives, even if making it to conferences is difficult). It’s not about drugs or alcohol; the richer you are, the more likely you are to have a problem with those. It’s not about laziness or lack of will.

It’s about lack of opportunities. It’s about lack of access to good, affordably early childhood experiences, lack of a robust set of after-school activities, lack of time and transportation and reliable income, housing, and health. It’s deep, it’s entrenched, it’s hurting kids right now, and it’s growing.

It’s also not the only reason why we have an educational equity gap. Schools serving under-resourced communities struggle with high teacher turnover, low levels of teacher experience (which, yes, does matter), and decaying buildings. They’re understaffed in key areas -- not just teachers, but counselors, librarians, social workers, and nurses -- and weren’t designed to end poverty.

Fighting poverty can end up looking a lot like school reform. Don’t like where you live? Here’s a voucher to live somewhere else. Don’t like your kids’ school? Here’s a voucher, a bus, or a charter school. Choice alone isn’t enough, though. We’re always left asking, “What about the people who are still there?” Hollowing out our cities by moving everyone to the suburbs is even less practical than trying to improve schools through competition. And, as is growing increasingly clear, choice left unmanaged tends to lead to increased segregation with few or no big-picture gains to show for it. This is true for housing and for schools.

Against this backdrop, we’re left with the question of what to do about the schools. “Fixing poverty” cannot be a precondition for improving schools, and few people claim it should be. This does not mean that everyone will agree with the preferred policies of whatever branch of education reform you claim as your own.

There are branches to education reform, after all, and we should be better about acknowledging them. I’ve already discussed why choice alone isn’t enough. Stricter “accountability” rules linked to test scores aren’t likely to achieve much of significance, either. This isn’t a rules and incentives problem, although the hypothesis made sense at one time. This is, as many feared, a capacity problem. That usually means that something is expensive (and not in the profitable way).

Changing the rules and the managers will not significantly advance educational equity any more than waiting for the amelioration of poverty. Choice and accountability policies, as practiced today, too often risk dispersing or reducing capacity, which is a valid reason to oppose them.

That’s not a reason to throw up our hands in despair. It does mean recognizing that housing policy is education policy. We should also invest in widespread, high-quality, affordable early childhood opportunities. We should fund a wide array of summer programs aimed at enrichment. We should do more to empower teachers and school leaders in setting and executing the vision for their schools, but do so within a district system that can help families navigate the options available to them. We should work on turning our segregated, student-starved district schools into integrated, appealing district schools.

These are affirmative things that directly affect education. They express a different vision than that espoused by many choice advocates, and they don’t focus on the same topics that animate “accountability” advocates. They are still education reform, and they do not rely on “fixing poverty first.” Expectations for how much these reforms can accomplish, though, do need to be informed by the realities of poverty.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Jerry Von Korff says:

    November 4, 2013 at 9:53 am

    There is a great deal of research and considerable experience accumulated on the things that work.  Large effect sizes can be demonstrated when principals become instructional leaders and implement coordinated programs that change the culture of the school and implement approaches to teaching that work.  In order make those programs work, the entire school has to be part of an effort to improve instruction, change the learning culture in the school, use data to inform instruction, and respond to the information that the data provides appropriately.

    I think that people who want to see urban schools are fed up with the concept that we can implement changes that are necessary, only if they don’t disturb the basics of the way that schools are run.  The list of changes that you have identified, summer programs and enrichment, actually, are not generally associated with significant improvement in student achievement, but have as their central characteristic that nobody gets to ask teachers and principals to change.  The ones that are generally associated with significant improvement, require teachers to do something significantly different, and not just some of them, but all of them.

    MN2020 should recognize that the main issue in education today requires significant changes, and that some of those changes take union leadership out of their comfort zone.  Its time for folks of good will to decide whether defending the status quo is the driving force in Minnesota, or whether we really are going to put kids first in the way that schools are run.

    • Alec says:

      November 4, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      We have been implementing many of those changes that work in our school of 2000+ where we are 90% poverty and minority with 97% graduation rate and doubled our math proficiency in a year when most of the state stayed stagnant and the “bating the odds” charters dropped precipitously.

      He implication that the union has to get on board is ludicrous. We are driven in the exact same things you mention by a union-administration partnership. The problem is that these real, effective, and humane reforms take time and hard work. Modern reform promises the world in a minute to an understandably frustrated community.

      What is required to implement the reforms you suggest in your comment is real support for teachers in a long term endeavor. This is the antithesis of modern education reform. The people getting in the way of real reform that is good for kids are the get rich quick edu-celebrities using teachers as their scapegoats.

    • Stan says:

      November 5, 2013 at 10:59 am

      I want to build on Jeff’s comment that “the entire school has to be part of an effort to improve instruction, change the learning culture in the school, use data to inform instruction, and respond appropriately to the information that the data provides.”  I expect that we have strived too long for productivity through investment in school size.  I would like to see all High School sizes be capped at 800 to 1,0000 students.  This size should be enough to support some advanced programs and small enough to allow staff to get to know their student population.  In this situation the “learning culture” and “team based best practices” can be more easily leveraged.  Further should the unfortunate situation occur where a specific school learning environment becomes dysfunctional the unit would be small enough too actually undergo dramatic restructuring activity. 

      The principals can be instructional leaders and focus on program coordination.  “Back office” functions (accounting, HR, facility) can be clustered to cover multiple schools.

      Enrichment programs do not need to be run through the individual schools but can be Regional extracurricular activities.

  • Michael Diedrich says:

    November 4, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Thank you for commenting, Jerry!

    I agree wholeheartedly with your first paragraph, which is why “do more to empower teachers and school leaders in setting and executing the vision for their schools” was included in my list here. It’s also a topic I’ve touched on elsewhere (e.g. in “School by School, District by District” when I wrote, “This requires leaders at the school and district level who are motivated, persistent, patient, and intentionally inclusive of educators in the work. It requires educators who maintain an ongoing focus on their own learning and development.”) I plan to return to the importance of a unified vision and the flexibility to achieve it in the future as well.

    I don’t think MN2020’s record on education issues defends the status quo. Other writers and I have criticized many aspects of some trends in reform, but that criticism comes from the belief that some reform polices are in fact bad for kids. The goal is still making a good education available to all Minnesota students. You and I may disagree about the best way to do that (though I think we agree on many points), but we’re both trying to advocate for what we think is good for kids.

  • Linda says:

    November 4, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    I don’t know what the magic bullet is, but I do know that poverty alone doesn’t keep children from doing well in school.  During her growing-up years, my mother’s father was disabled and the family lived on county welfare, but she got straight A’s in high school and two years of college, and all while working part-time since she was 16.  (She decided to leave college when she married my father).  Her brother earned a B.A. degree from the University of Minnesota, paying his way with a combination of scholarships and part-time jobs.  My mother and uncle did have one important advantage that many poor students today don’t have—an intact family with both parents married to each other and living with their children.

  • Jim Mork says:

    November 13, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    Seems to me some politicians are waking up to realize that what kind of home environment students come from is just as important as financing and teacher education.  Unmarried pregnancy, absentee fathers, rappers as idols, and many many similar items can totally poison a mind for education.  The single most important item in the matter of achieving in school is the student’s desire to do so.  A strong enough desire will ovecome everything. The fanciest school in the world cannot make up for the LACK.  Does anyone actually think Paris Hilton had any roadblocks to becoming well-educated? But she isn’t. So stop thinking somehow money is a talisman. Can’t run a school with no money, but once the school is operating, then everything depends on the influences that form the student’s mind.