The Poverty Myth Persists

By 02/16/2012

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Every time I see a “poverty and education” story I think of the famous line from the New Testament in which Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.”

So, with education. Want a convenient scapegoat for our problems? Poverty. It’s there, it’s handy.

I sat through an hour meeting of our small school district’s budget committee last week, most of it devoted to bemoaning our fate as a “poor district” (over 60 percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, the standard definition of “poor” for schools) in these recessionary times. State aid has been nearly flat and the Governor punched through a two percent local property tax cap. Woe is us. There goes sports. Not mentioned was the fact that we spend over $22,000 per student!

Diane Ravitch has been hitting the poverty gong for some time, most recently in Cleveland, where, she says, “the level of urban decay is alarming.” I was just in Cleveland and, while I can appreciate the sentiment, I fail to understand how she gets to the next sentence: “Yet its municipal leaders have decided that their chief problem is bad teachers.”


I visited a couple of successful Cleveland public schools during my visit—successful in educating poor children—and while principals in each of those schools said they could use more money, neither said that money—or their students’ lack of it—was their major challenge. Getting good teachers was. In fact, at one of those schools both the principal and the assistant, in separate interviews, said that having to employ less than competent teachers was the biggest drag on the school’s continuing success.

Poverty is a hard thing. I have seen my share of it and written about it, as have others at Fordham. And one thing is certain: poverty’s connection to education is largely in the eye of the beholder and that eye is often shielded by some kind of rose-tinted (or magic mirror) glass.

It was this feeling I had while mulling how to react to Sabrina Tavernise’s front-page New York Timesstory from last week, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor,” a story which generated a great deal of attention. As Tavernise pointed out,

[A] body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.

That the rich do better than the poor in school is a compelling comment. But to turn an effect into a cause—at least, to offer up a delicious non sequitur—is what so often bedevils the discussion. Bad educational practices, such as the poverty of pedagogy or misshapen human resource policies in inner city schools, does not enter into the discussion.

Tavernise does allow a quick dissent by University of Chicago economist James Heckman, who argues, she writes, that “parenting matters as much as, if not more than, income in forming a child’s cognitive ability and personality, particularly in the years before children start school.”

This was the point made by Tavernise colleague David Brooks, in his “Materialist Fallacy column yesterday. It’s not the lack of money that is causing the deterioration of the social fabric, Brooks argues, it’s “disrupted communities” where citizens “lack the social capital to enact…values.”

As has been pointed out often enough, and as Tavernise’s opening sentence says,

Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults.

So why have we given up on the idea that education can be the “great equalizer”? The answer, I believe, is that we have accepted the “materialistic fallacy.” We have taken results of our education ineptitudes—more poverty—and made them the cause of them.

As I suggested the other day, in discussing E.D. Hirsch and reading, insights about cognitive, knowledge, and community deficiencies in early childhood, if recognized, can be compensated for.

That Tavernise ends her story quoting think tanker Douglas Besharov, saying that “No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare” is indeed bizarre.

Shouted Whitney Tilson:

What?! The cupboard is NOT bare! In fact, over the past decade it’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that very high quality schools, filled with very high quality teachers, in a culture of high expectations, no excuses, etc. (i.e., KIPP and similar schools) can overcome the effects of poverty and that the great majority of even the most disadvantaged kids can achieve at high levels.

Let’s resolve to quit blaming the poor for the poor education they are receiving.

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

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