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Of course class matters. Schools matter too.

A recent piece on the New York Times op-ed page, which somehow didn’t get much immediate attention, ranks in the view of this jaded sometimes-ed-writer as one of the most troubling articles on education reform of 2011.

The December 11 op-ed, by Duke public policy professor Helen Ladd and former New York Times education editor Edward Fiske, was headlined “Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?” It makes a few points that ought to worry anybody who cares a lot about education in low-income communities:

  1. The Obama administration and education reformers are in denial about the link between family income and children’s educational outcomes.
  2. It is a foolish for us to expect schools to break that link.
  3. As a society, we are better off putting our energy into afterschool programs and such

Certainly, Ladd and Fiske are correct when they state that educational achievement is closely tied to income. It’s hard to figure out, as Peter Meyer points out in a strong Education Next blog post, who exactly is in denial on that point (whether you agree or disagree with Meyer’s take on past antipoverty efforts).

But the truly problematic part of the Fiske and Ladd piece comes when they heap scorn on the idea that schools can change the lives of poor children. They write:

So why do presumably well-intentioned policy makers ignore, or deny, the correlations of family background and student achievement?

Some honestly believe that schools are capable of offsetting the effects of poverty. Others want to avoid the impression that they set lower expectations for some groups of students for fear that those expectations will be self-fulfilling. In both cases, simply wanting something to be true does not make it so.

Another rationale for denial is to note that some schools, like the [KIPP] charter schools, have managed to “beat the odds.” If some schools can succeed, the argument goes, then it is reasonable to expect all schools to. But close scrutiny of charter school performance has shown that many of the success stories have been limited to particular grades or subjects and may be attributable to substantial outside financing or extraordinarily long working hours on the part of teachers. The evidence does not support the view that the few success stories can be scaled up to address the needs of large populations of disadvantaged students.

It’s worth taking that oddly mismatched list of reasons for high performance one at a time. First, holding up the remarkable—and thoroughly documented—achievements of KIPP and other top charter networks against “close scrutiny” of the mixed performance of charter schools overall seems to sow doubt where it doesn’t belong. Second, there’s replete evidence that additional funding—“outside” or otherwise—isn’t well correlated with school performance, absent other changes, so that’s a lousy explanation for better performance. Money by itself doesn’t fix bad schools—otherwise, the comparatively well-funded schools of Newark, NJ, should be delivering a far better education than, say, those of Oakland, CA. It’s only the third point—hard-working teachers—that actually figures as a reason for strong student performance. Ironically, that point counters the authors’ claims, and suggests that good schools might have a lot to do with setting kids from poor communities on a trajectory for success.

It’s in vogue to critique reform efforts by suggesting that the connection between poverty and low educational achievement is an unchangeable fact, and that schools merely play around the edges. But that belief flies in the face of both evidence and the very purpose of public schools in America—and it irresponsibly sows doubt about the value of working to improve schools.

Our public education system grew from Horace Mann’s belief that education “prevents being poor” and could be “the balance wheel of the social machinery.” In the century and a half since then, America has viewed one of the primary roles of public schooling as providing a path from humble circumstances to middle-class comfort. Moreover, one wonders how exactly we fight poverty if our schools fail to provide a path out. As Kathleen Porter-Magee brilliantly wrote in a blog post last summer, “Of course, the link between student achievement and socioeconomic status is unmistakable….  But saying we need to fix poverty before we can fix schools is like a doctor saying that he’s going to wait until you get better before he treats you.  Education is the path out of poverty, not the consolation prize offered to children whose families have managed to dig their way out on their own.”

Today, even in communities of concentrated poverty, excellent public schools are demonstrating that college success—the main ticket to economic mobility—is in reach. The hundreds upon hundreds of schools in America’s toughest communities that are sending students to college at high rates already have proven that great schools can break the link between poverty and educational outcomes. KIPP alone has created more than 100 such schools. We need many thousands of schools that good, and even KIPP is humble about the work it will take to prepare every student for success in college. There is no doubt that it’s hard work to replicate the best schools, which is true. But good schools change lives, and are our best lever to fight poverty. We are past the days when anyone should pretend otherwise, or claim it’s not worth the effort.

* Disclosure: I worked for KIPP Foundation for several years.

6 Responses to “Of course class matters. Schools matter too.”

  1. Wendy Smith says:

    I taught high school in two Title I traditional public schools for four years. The argument for higher teacher pay has always struck me as yet another excuse for poor results from poor students. Really, how much more money would be enough? How much more would be sufficient to trigger in all teachers—in all failing public school classrooms—the consistent execution of high-quality instruction necessary to prepare low-income students to compete with their better prepared, more affluent peers? Salary and quality don’t correlate. Pointing to higher teacher pay as a causative agent of higher results—in any student—is fallacious logic and is an insult to the thousands of teachers who drive remarkable results in spite how much they get paid.

  2. Carrie Brown says:

    Yes, the schools that succeed in spite of high levels of poverty manage to address children’s needs by providing wrap-around social services. These services are usually funded with private money that exceeds the typical public school’s budget. Yes, amazing teachers work around the clock and do much more than the minimum required. However, it is unrealistic to expect all schools to be able to do the same without the necessary resources.

    If we want miracles, then we are going to have to pay for the necessary services and support systems necessary to allow students to be ready and able to learn. It is unfair to hold up an ideal of teachers who work extended hours without good pay or benefits and expect all teachers to be able to work like that. If we want professional teachers who go above and beyond, we must treat them with respect and pay them a professional wage.

    Parents with children who have considered “choices” among public schools understand that the quality of a public school is directly related to the quality of life that students experience outside of school. This is not a surprise or an excuse. It is reality.

    The idea that American public schools are failing is a myth. American students from low poverty schools outperform their competitors on the PISA. Low scores on the PISA are directly related to the economic status of the students taking the tests. Poverty explains levels of achievement and the quality of public schools. I have yet to see a failing school in places where parents are college-educated and affluent.

    In my state, Arizona, the highly performing charter schools are full of capable and mostly affluent families who are able to choose a school and support their children’s education. These schools are able to exclude those that the traditional schools always serve no matter what. It is time to get real about school reform.

    If we care about educating American children, then we must also consider reforms that will deal with the devastating effects of poverty and income inequality. Schools are forces for change among those in poverty, but it is unrealistic to expect them to be miracle workers on their own. There is no evidence or data that support the current efforts to hold teachers’ accountable for their students’ test scores or to privatize schools as a way to make them more effective. We do know that when families are able to take care of their needs that their children have a better chance at succeeding in school. Perhaps our time and resources would be spent more wisely making sure that children are protected from the devastating consequences of poverty and income inequality.

  3. Toni says:

    I really think you missed the point – I don’t think it’s saying schools shouldn’t be good or should stop trying to help students just because they are poor. It’s saying that just focusing on the school day and ignoring the issues that come with poverty is detrimental to achieving higher performing schools – that they go hand in hand. I have worked in an inner city charter school and was able to make some gains with my students. However, it was always two steps forward and one step back. These kids get out of school and go to empty homes, socialize with gangs, have no books, no healthy foods, no role models and we expect that the next day they will come to school prepared to learn. We do need better and longer after school programs, weekend programs, community centers to help parents prepare easy healthy meals, better community support and better early life education and support. The article is saying without these, it is more difficult and maybe impossible to stop the tide of increasing poverty and educational challenges. And in my experience they are right.

  4. Jonathan Schorr Jonathan Schorr says:

    Joel–I agree absolutely that we should address poverty through every means we can–both through what we’ve in the past called “anti-poverty measures” and through schools. I argue with those who dismiss schools as a vital part of the solution.

  5. Joel says:

    It is indeed a wonderful achievement for schools to help students from communities of concentrated poverty to demonstrate college success. My feeling is that in order to improve the opportunities for educational performance it is necessary to also address the underlying cause(s) of poverty . Unfortunately, our current neoliberal/capitalist economy is creating poverty rather than alleviating it. I wonder what KIPP’s net effect really is?

  6. Scott Benson says:

    Jonathan,

    Great post and I agree wholeheartedly.

    To pile on, the authors suggest: “Since they can’t take on poverty itself, education policy makers should try to provide poor students with the social support and experiences that middle-class students enjoy as a matter of course.”

    Sure, more and better social services outside of school would be helpful, but in their absence the best schools compensate. Every high-performing school I have been in ensures that students’ basic needs are met and then layers on intense support services for students who need them. It’s not as if they’re sitting around waiting for someone else to offer food, medical care and counseling services when kids are in need. They provide it.

    As a society, we need to ask ourselves what supports do children who grow up in poverty need, which institutions are best positioned to deliver them, and how much will that cost? While we wrestle with those big questions, the best schools will continue to meet the needs of poor children because no one else is, and they will have the results to show for it.

    -Scott Benson