Professor Lauren Curtright
5 December 2016
Poverty and the Inequity of School Reform
School reform in the United States is not a new idea; Americans have been attempting to ‘reform’ their schools almost since their educational system was created. The problem with school reform in modern American society is not a lack of caring, or a lack of energy on the part of the reformers, and it is certainly not a lack of data that shows where Americans are going wrong. The problem seems to be a lack of understanding of that wealth of data and an inability to see beyond the numbers to the real people that those numbers represent. Those numbers represent American children; they represent the future of the United States. And, truth be told, Americans are not, as the alarmists would have one believe, so far behind the rest of the world that that future is shrouded in darkness. Americans do not have a public education system full of unqualified and incompetent educators, or a nation full of unruly and unwilling students and disengaged parents. What Americans have is a vast ocean of inequality that will not be fixed by charter schools, school choice, merit pay, standardized testing, the termination of teachers who are unable to meet unattainable goals, or the closing of the schools in which they teach, and it will certainly not be fixed by placing blame on one group or another. What will fix the American education system is an honest and intense effort to eliminate the inequality before it begins. Poverty is the base-line problem in American schools today, and working to eliminate the socio-economic differences between school districts across the nation is the real key to making the American public education system the truly great institution that it could be.
Choice is a valuable thing in the United States. It is guaranteed within the Constitution, and it is one of the things that sets the United States apart from other nations. Americans want choice; Americans hold up the idea of choice as the pinnacle of a truly democratic society. But is it possible that too much choice can be a bad thing? When it comes to deciding where their children should be educated, sometimes Americans have too many choices. Public schools, private schools, parochial schools, charter schools, and school vouchers: these are options designed to make sure that Americans can get their children the best education they believe they deserve. Unfortunately, these choices are not for everyone. Choosing to send one’s child to a school in another district, to a private school, or to a charter school is a luxury of the rich or, at the very least, is not a luxury of the poor. Parents who struggle every day to keep their children fed, clothed, sheltered and healthy do not necessarily have the choice to send their children to a school outside of their district, whether for reasons of money or time or a need to focus on more immediate issues of well-being. Economic hardship limits choice. In 1973, the percentage of the United States’ population living in poverty (defined as an annual income (pre-tax) of $23,050 or less for a family of four) was 11.1; that number had risen to 14.8 percent by 2014 (“Poverty”). Poverty affects educational choices on a fundamental level, and Americans cannot fix their schools without fixing that underlying problem.
Blame is another thing that Americans do well. This is a controversial statement in any situation, but when it comes to education, everyone is quick to point fingers. There are those who blame parents and those who blame students, but, more often than not, the finger is pointed at teachers, and, sometimes, it seems, the responsibility for the ‘failure’ of American public education is placed almost entirely on their shoulders. How can this be? Teachers, as a general rule, are not a well-paid group of people. One does not enter the teaching profession with the goal of getting rich and retiring to one’s own private tropical paradise. Teachers are also not just teaching because they can’t do anything else. (Whoever came up with that nonsensical aphorism ‘Those who can’t, teach’ should spend some time in a classroom.) If that were the case, then those individuals would quickly be disabused of any notion that their endeavor will be an afternoon stroll down the path of least resistance. Furthermore, teachers are not parents, insofar as they are not the people who make life-changing and life-affirming decisions on a daily basis for the children who spend a portion of their time under their care and supervision. So then, how have Americans succumbed to the reformist propaganda that the problem with the nation’s schools lies with the teachers, that the very group who have committed to educating American youth is the same one that threatens the very foundations of the institution of education itself? The answer is simple: unrealistic expectations.
These unrealistic expectations come in many forms, but none is so damaging as the expectation that comes from standardized testing. Within the United States, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation on many levels) and 2009’s Race to the Top program have placed undue emphasis on standardized testing. As Ryan M. Hourigan discusses in an article in the Arts Education Policy Review, “mandates” like these “compound the obstacles faced by children with disabilities, minority children, and students who live in poverty” (35). American students today take an unprecedented number of standardized tests over the course of the school year to the point where the United States appears to have a testing epidemic. With so much testing and so much importance placed on the outcomes of this testing, teachers have little choice but to spend valuable classroom time teaching only the material that students will encounter on tests. Not only is this unethical on a fundamental level, but also it does a great disservice to American students and teachers. Americans do not send their children to school to take tests, but to learn, to gain understanding, and to become creative, innovative, and knowledgeable human beings with the power to do great things and move the world. People do not become teachers to make sure that children can fill in the correct bubbles on an answer sheet, but rather to inspire, and to help create the leaders, thinkers, and great minds that will shape the world for generations to come. Testing has become a roadblock to learning, especially for low-income children. Alice Wexler, in the aforementioned Arts Education Policy Review, asserts that “the social effects of poverty […] are factors that contribute to learning and other disabilities and, inevitably, low performance on standardized tests” (54). If poverty decreases students’ scores on tests, and if test scores determine funding for schools, and if quality of education determines success in life, then Americans are now in the unfortunate predicament of not only having degraded the education of all of their children but also creating an educational system that keeps low-income children trapped in poverty.
Despite the decline in educational quality due to over-testing in the United States, school reformers are misguided in thinking that the nation is so far behind the rest of the developed world in terms of where American students fall on the international barometer of standards in math and reading that the nation’s very security is at risk. Such reformers caution that if Americans don’t do something to fix their broken system fast, then the nation will be left in the dust, the economy will fail, productivity will go down and, for all intents and purposes, Americans will be the laughingstock of planet Earth. However, the data just doesn’t support this. The extreme rates of poverty in the United States compared to other countries involved in international assessments of educational systems produce an unfair comparison that is not technically valid. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, writes about the latest results of two major studies that compare school systems around the world: the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). Not only do PISA and TALIS report test scores from participating countries, but they also offer analysis of this data. According to the reports, the United States has the “fifth-highest poverty level […] ahead of only Chile, Turkey, Israel, and Mexico,” but places “sixty-first in educational resource allocation” (Weingarten 6). The data is clear: “world-class school systems target educational resources to the children that need them the most, [they support their educators], and they hold the entire system accountable for continuous improvement” (1). Diane Ravitch, in Reign of Error, explains that American students in low-poverty schools consistently rank among the top performers internationally. What lowers the United States’ global competitiveness are the results from those school districts that are at an economic disadvantage. Therefore, if the performances of students in high-poverty schools were improved, then the United States educational system would rank better internationally.
Poverty is doing real damage to the United States’ educational system, and the achievement gap has to be narrowed, if not eliminated completely. The key is not, as reformers like Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and the Teach for America program would have one believe, to fix the schools and watch poverty disappear. That is an equation without balance or logic, and children deserve better. The real solution is to work on fixing the problem at its source. If Americans focused on reducing poverty, as well as supported their teachers and gave them the autonomy to do their jobs well, then Americans could redefine school reform in the United States and see more students of all incomes flourish.
Hourigan, Ryan M. “Intersections Between School Reform, the Arts, and Special Education: The Children Left Behind.” Arts Education Policy Review 115.2 (2014): 35-38. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.
“Poverty.” Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection. Detroit: Gale, 2016. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.
Ravitch, Diane. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2013. Print.
Weingarten, Randi. “International Education Comparisons: How American Education Reform is the New Status Quo.” New England Journal of Public Policy 26.1 (2014): 1. Advanced Placement Source. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.
Wexler, Alice. “Reaching Higher? The Impact of the Common Core State Standards on the Visual Arts, Poverty, and Disabilities.” Arts Education Policy Review 115.2 (2014): 52-61. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.