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.