Much of the current education debate consists of a constant, ongoing argument about the role of poverty. One “side” is accused of using poverty as an excuse for not improving schools, and of saying that poverty is destiny in regard to educational outcomes. The other “side” is accused of completely ignoring the detrimental effects of poverty, and of arguing that market-based reforms can by themselves transform our public education system.
Both portrayals are inaccurate, and both “sides” know it, yet the accusations continue. Of course there is a core of truth in the characterizations, but the differences are far more nuanced than the opponents usually communicate. It’s really a matter of degree. In addition to differences in the specifics of what should be done, a lot boils down to variations in how much improvement we believe can be gained by teacher-focused education reform (or by education reform in general) by itself. In other words, some people have higher expectations than others.
I have previously argued that the reasonable expectation for teacher quality-based reforms is that, if everything goes perfectly (which is far from certain), they will generate very slow, gradual improvement over a period of years and decades. This means we should make these changes, but be very careful to design them sensibly, monitor their effects, and maintain realistic expectations (for the record, I think we are, in many respects, falling short on all three counts).
But the thing that I find a little frustrating about the whole poverty/education thing is that, while nobody should use poverty as an excuse in education policy, it’s not uncommon to hear education used as an excuse, of sorts, in discussions about anti-poverty policy.
These days, if you ask a politician or prominent public figure (of either party) about what they’re doing for the poor, they tend to talk mostly about education.
Obviously, to some degree, this makes perfect sense. A stronger education system is a key means by which poverty and inequality might be alleviated in the long term. Education belongs in that conversation, in a prominent role. Nevertheless, just as poverty shouldn’t be the only focus in discussions about improving education, education shouldn’t crowd out everything else in discussions about reducing poverty.
I’m not trying to erect another straw man - there are many substantive, meaningful discussions going on, and nobody thinks education is the only solution. Yet even as the recession decimates low-income families, the safety net continues to erode. And I sometimes feel like much of what passes for political rhetoric on strategies to fight this poverty – and justify these huge cuts in programs that do so - consists mostly of “we need to fix bad schools," with only passing reference to any other type of program (see here, here, here, here, here and here).
This is no better than saying we can’t fix schools until we "fix poverty." Anti-poverty policy, though costly, is very effective in the U.S., and education is only one among many factors that contribute to poverty and inequality (as is partially evident in the fact that much of the rise in inequality in the U.S. has occurred among similarly-educated people). In addition, while improving public education will help millions of people, the benefits will elude everyone who is beyond school age. These people need help now, and no amount of K-12 education reform will provide it.
Mitigating poverty will improve education outcomes, and vice-versa. So let’s not allow either to be an "excuse" for failing to comprehensively address the other.
- Matt Di Carlo