A Christmas Carol For Our Schools

By 12/20/2011

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A new round of the popular education board game, Poverty Matters, began last week with a New York Times op-ed by Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske, titled, “Class Matters: Why Won’t We Admit It?”  (Interestingly, the essay is really about poverty, not class, and the paper that Ladd wrote on which the essay is based is titled Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence.  See also Kathleen Porter-Magee’s The `Poverty Matters’ Trap from last July’s Flypaper.)

Ladd and Fiske’s essay was one of those broadsides that spreads through the teacher ranks like a brush fire. I received my email copy from one of our district’s veteran teachers, a hard-working, dedicated woman who rarely misses an opportunity to remind me that she and her colleagues would be doing a fine job were it not for unmotivated kids and their irresponsible parents.  And Diane Ravitch weighed in,  calling to mind, in tune with the season, the story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim, offering to “update this tale for today’s school reformers” by calling attention to Ladd and Fiske’s op-ed. (Ravitch says she uses Ladd’sEducation and Poverty paper in her post.)

What I don’t understand in all of this is who exactly is claiming that class (or poverty or parents or kids) doesn’t matter?  Ladd and Fiske spend most of their essay stating the obvious: that socio-economic circumstance matters to education outcomes. The evidence that our policymakers and reformers are in denial of this salient fact?

“No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face.”


NCLB actually forced schools to pay attention to their poor and minority students by demanding disaggregated data; that looks to me like quite the note.  And plenty of schools that I have visited got the message.  But it’s not good enough for Ladd and Fiske, who argue that the law should also have helped schools “address the challenges [poor and minority students] carry with them into the classroom.”


What happened to Title I?  What happened to free-and-reduced lunch? What about the dozens of adequacy and equity lawsuits that have redistributed billions of tax dollars to low-wealth schools?  And those are just the heavily subsidized income distribution anti-poverty programs directed at schools.  Outside of schools we have Medicaid, Section 8 housing, WIC (Women, Infants and Children food program), food stamps and a plethora of anti-poverty programs that should prove, if nothing else, how misguided the cure-poverty first folks are.

As Porter-Magee wrote last July,

“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.”

The only denial here is Ladd and Fiske’s: thirty years of “war on poverty” (vis Lyndon Johnson, 1964) and stultifyingly little school improvement to show for it. Several years ago I met a low-income housing developer who told me, “I once believed that cleaning up a neighborhood by building decent housing would improve education; it didn’t.”

Ladd and Fiske’s assertions are even more bizarre given the fact that an increasing number of reformers – not to mention generations of Catholic educators, to cite the best known of the private schools that educate the poor – have proven over and over again that poverty is an educational challenge for schools not a death sentence for their students.

But Ladd and Fiske twist these successes into pretzels of logic:   “If some schools can succeed, the argument goes, then it is reasonable to expect all schools to.”  Who makes that argument?  Reasonable?  It would be reasonable to expect such proven methods to work unless, of course, you’re part of a determined status quo which believes that hundred-page teacher contracts, tenure, single-salary wage schedules, and last-in-first-out labor laws are also reasonable.

As with Ravitch’s “miracle” argument (“the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny,” she asserted in the Times last May), Ladd and Fiske build mighty big straw men.  Bam! Slam! “[C]lose 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.”

And what is the point?  If it isn’t going to work for everyone, it shouldn’t be tried by anyone?  What exactly is preventing poor public schools from receiving “substantial” financing (many of them, as we know, already do) or hiring teachers who will work hard?

Speaking of the devil (that’s just a joke, friends, no demonizing intended), Randi Weingarten is bringing the American Federation of Teachers version of the anti-poverty campaign to the county where it all began — McDowell County, West Virginia, the first place in the nation to receive food stamps – in what the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton says is “an unusual effort to turn around a floundering school system… by simultaneously tackling the social and economic troubles of McDowell County.”  (Custer’s last stand comes to mind.)

Speaking from the same script as Ladd, Fiske, and Ravitch, Weingarten tells Layton, that “I’ve gotten so angry in the last couple of years when people who are new to our field decide that they alone, just by exhorting, will help ensure that geography does not become destiny for some kids….  A lot of the factors that confront kids — poverty, divorce, health care — are real obstacles. People can pretend to ignore them elsewhere, but no one can ignore those factors in McDowell.”

Pretend to ignore?

No matter how often  serious reformers repeat it – and I have heard it often the status quo ante brigades that Ravitch and Ladd and Fiske and Weingarten represent so well refuse to hear it: poverty matters, class matters, parents matter, kids matter, and, what these new establishmentarians keep denying, schools matter. No serious reformer that I know of, as Ladd and Fiske assert, “den[ies] a correlation [between poverty and educational achievement].”  In fact, it is these reformers’ very embrace of those challenges that distinguishes them from the new establishmentarians and allowed them to, yes, “beat the odds.”

And even Scrooge got the message eventually – but it wasn’t the message Ravitch thinks is key to the Christmas Carol. The biggest sin of Dickens’ famous anti-hero is his monocular view of the world, his belief that caste and class were indeed so deeply imbedded in a person’s character that charity did not matter. Scrooge was the original determinist cumfatalist: since class matters there’s no point in reaching out. Not until he was visited by the ghosts of determinists past did he see the light:  Tiny Tim was redeemable! And in that redemption Scrooge himself would be saved. The lesson here, I’m afraid, is that schools, like Scrooge, can make a difference in children’s lives. And it is my Christmas hope that teachers and policymakers will be freed from their chains and see how much they can do to improve schools and the educational opportunities of our most needy children.

—Peter Meyer

This post also appeared on Flypaper.

Comment on this article
  • jeffrey miller says:

    You ask what happened with all the social programs, as if the nation has not been addressing the ills highlighted by the NYT authors. You seem to think that all that good work should have amounted to something but has not as evidenced in the relative lack of school improvement.

    What you and so many others with a conservative bent totally fail to grasp is that history could have turned out differently, for the far worse, had nothing much been done by the Great Society and various programs since. Or, perhaps you know this and are just playing a rhetorical game with unsuspecting readers.

    “Custer’s last stand”? Oh really?

    You completely dismissed that project in West Virginia with a flippant reference to a massacre. And you have the temerity to call out the NYT authors for advocating for the status quo? I suspect you just don’t like the policy prescriptions that the WVa and similar projects present. It means doing something about poverty and if you think that is part of human destiny then YOU are the one trapped in the status quo.

  • efavorite says:

    So what are you saying exactly? You seem to be against Ravitch, et al, but I’m not sure what you’re espousing.

    The nearly five year long reform movement in DC believes that teachers alone “catapult” kids out of poverty and into “great lives.” Here’s Chancellor Henderson, Rhee’s former deputy on the subject:

    “I’m not discounting the effects of poverty or kids coming to school hungry, but we can’t use that as an excuse for not reaching our kids. At the end of the day, you know and I know, great teachers who took kids from improbable circumstances and catapulted them to great lives and we have to ensure that this is the norm and not the exception.” http://mountvernontoday.com/education/208-new-dc-school-chief-inspired-by-mount-vernon-education.html

    And so for the eight hours a day that we have them, we can’t make excuses for the fact that they come from poverty. In fact, we have to set incredibly high expectations. And what I know about children is they rise to the expectations that you set for them. http://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2010-12-20/dc-schools-interim-chancellor-kaya-henderson/transcript

    It hasn’t worked. Scores are flat or declining and the achievement gap has widened during their tenure.

    So if poverty matters, then what are we to do about it besides expect classroom teachers to solve it?

    When do reformers start taking responsibility for their own failures?

  • […] on student learning, of course.”And more directly and fully, Peter Meyer has offered “A Christmas Carol For Our Schools”: “What I don’t understand in all of this is who exactly is claiming that class (or poverty […]

  • Brook says:

    Mr. Meyer, you’re misreading the argument. The Ladd and Fiske article is not a broadside; it pushes the line back from the extreme blame-the-teachers position that the political right has dug over the past few years.

    As an 11-year veteran of classrooms that serve both the wealthy and the poor, I know that students’ class matters, but that doesn’t stop me from delivering a high-quality, high-expectations learning environment to all students.

    However, when one student does his essay and another student doesn’t because he spent the weekend with his father in the next city over and didn’t have a chance to work on it because his father and step-mother monopolize his time, and his mother can’t help or attend parent conferences because she’s on the bus for four hours a day going to and from her full time job in the city, then the issues of poverty and other social ills are undeniable. I taught the same lessons to those same two boys–why did one grow and succeed as a writer while the other didn’t, save for poverty and social background?

  • Peter Meyer says:

    Dear Brook et al,

    The story of the two kids who respond very differently to a class assignment (one does the paper and the other doesn’t) surely encapsulates the teaching challenge. But there are policy implications as well. Does the school have a homework policy? Do teachers collaborate to discuss whether the kid who can’t get his homework done is having trouble in other classes? Does the school have a parent outreach coordinator? Etc. In other words, there are plenty of things a school can — and should — do to solve this problem. Pushing the buck to social circumstance or poverty — which is what Fiske and Ladd do — should be unacceptable. And though I am not a blame-the-teacher reformer, I do believe that teachers must accept some responsibility here (they seem not to discourage talk of the importance of teachers) and start reforming their unions (instead of hiding behind union skirts in the face of obvious counter-productive union policies) and becoming advocates for school reform policies (per above) that address the problems of poverty.


  • Aaron says:

    “….that should prove, if nothing else, how misguided the cure-poverty first folks are.”

    You appear to be at best weak manning, and in fact appear to be in fact hollow manning (creating an argument that nobody actually makes, then demonstrating how easy it is to bat the argument down), to avoid addressing the actual argument.

    That is, people who say you must address poverty aren’t saying either that “nothing will improve unless you cure poverty first” or that “the measures we’ve taken to date are going to cure poverty” – they’re stating that poverty needs to be taken into consideration along with the other factors that affect school performance.

  • LR says:


    I don’t think PM ever made the ‘hollow argument’ that you say he did, that “nothing will improve unless you cure poverty first” or that “the measures we’ve taken to date are going to cure poverty”. Here’s what he said:

    “poverty matters, class matters, parents matter, kids matter, and, what these new establishmentarians keep denying, schools matter. No serious reformer that I know of, as Ladd and Fiske assert, “den[ies] a correlation [between poverty and educational achievement].” In fact, it is these reformers’ very embrace of those challenges that distinguishes them from the new establishmentarians and allowed them to, yes, “beat the odds.””

    So according to you, there really isn’t any difference between what the two sides are arguing, as both seem to believe that “poverty needs to be taken into consideration along with the other factors that affect school performance.” The question is whether you and the other commenters believe that schools are one of those factors.

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