Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The problem is poverty

Take three and a half minutes and watch this...

The question isn't whether public education can be improved -- rather, it's how can it be improved. But before we implement a solution, we need to be clear about the real problems that are plaguing public education and, more generally, society.

The problem with Public Education is not low test scores. Poverty is the single largest problem that plagues most education systems.

In his post What the U.S can't learn from Finland, Pasi Sahlberg writes:
First of all, although Finland can show the United States what equal opportunity looks like, Americans cannot achieve equity without first implementing fundamental changes in their school system. The following three issues require particular attention.
  • Funding of schools:
  • Finnish schools are funded based on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources to each school regardless of location or wealth of its community.
  • Well-being of children:
  • All children in Finland have, by law, access to childcare, comprehensive health care, and pre-school in their own communities. Every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness in school.
  • Education as a human right:
  • All education from preschool to university is free of charge for anybody living in Finland. This makes higher education affordable and accessible for all.
As long as these conditions don’t exist, the Finnish equality-based model bears little relevance in the United States.
Linda Darling-Hammond writes in the Nation:
Inequality has an enormous influence on US performance. White and Asian students score just above the average for the European OECD nations in each subject area, but African-American and Hispanic students score so much lower that the national average plummets to the bottom tier. The United States is also among the nations where socioeconomic background most affects student outcomes. This is because of greater income inequality and because the United States spends much more educating affluent children than poor children, with wealthy suburbs often spending twice what central cities do, and three times what poor rural areas can afford. 
Alfie Kohn on the Majority Report puts it this way:
Talking about American education is like talking about the quality of American air. It depends where you are standing. The rich areas of this country do very, very well in comparison to people in any other part of the globe -- assuming you want to use test scores as your criteria. The reason we have problems on those rankings is mostly because the U.S has more poor children than almost any other industrial country. And in the poorer areas, the kids are in desperate trouble... The issues of inequity of a gap cannot be defined in terms of a gap in test scores, because when you try and correct that by pushing up the test scores in the inner cities, you make their education worse because the tests measure what matters least.
Even when we choose to use narrow measurements like the scores on international tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), it's important to recognize the effects poverty have on a country's ranking. Scores and rankings for countries like the United States are deceiving. When you include all students, the United States doesn't score well because 1 in 4 American children live in poverty.

If we are not careful, we risk misinterpreting the data. Instead of waging war on poverty, we end up waging war on teachers and schools. The shadow industries that have been stalking public education for a very long time need the public as an accomplice. Profiteers like Joel Klein and Organization's like Michelle Rhee's Students First are:
promoting an agenda that many educators see as de-legitimizing the teaching profession; making standardized tests a holy grail of assessing students, teachers and schools, allowing private foundations to set the education agenda; and inviting for-profit companies to come into the public sector with programs that are designed primarily to make money for investors, not help kids.

You'll notice that the likes of Michelle Rhee and her minions at Students First never mention poverty.

As long as we continue to misidentify the problem as low scores on standardized tests, and ignore the real problem of poverty, we will continue to apply solutions that actually make the problem worse. It's important to note that the United States has never done well on these international tests so to claim they are some how falling behind in the test score race is a lie.

People who say poverty is no excuse are making excuses about doing nothing about poverty. Children never choose to live in poverty, but we can choose to provide all children with a more equitable education system.

If we want to make school and the world a better place for our children, we need to be better informed. And to get you started, here are but a few people and organizations you should familiarize yourself with in order to stay properly informed:
Diane Ravitch blog - twitter
Yong Zhao blog - twitter
Deborah Meier blog - twitter
Susan Ohanian blog - twitter
Stephen Krashen website - twitter
Alfie Kohn website - twitter
Valerie Strauss blog
Anthony Cody blog - twitter
Pasi Sahlberg blog - twitter
Will Richardson blog - twitter
Phil McRae website - twitter
Carol Burris twitter
Paul Thomas blog - twitter
Gary Stager blog - twitter
Fairtest website - twitter
Schools Matter blog
Alberta Teachers' Association website - twitter


  1. While the problem is poverty , the solution may be to also look at the Asian-American community

    A century ago, most Asian Americans were low-skilled, low-wage laborers crowded into ethnic enclaves and targets of official discrimination

    Asian Americans are sometimes characterized as a model minority because many of their cultures encourage a strong work ethic, a respect for elders, a high degree of professional and academic success, a high valuation of family, education and religion.[110] Statistics such as high household income and low incarceration rate,[111] low rates of many diseases and higher than average life expectancy[112] are also discussed as positive aspects of Asian Americans.
    The implicit advice is that the other minorities should stop protesting and emulate the Asian American work ethic and devotion to higher education

  2. @AllanKatz,
    While Asians are often looked at as the "model minority", other ethnic groups would struggle to simply adopt their values. The reality is that most European and Asian ethnic groups voluntarily immigrated to America for a chance at a better life and had goals from the start to achieve success. Other ethnic groups, including African Americans and Native Americans, are involuntary minorities. They were oppressed from the start and even once more friendly governmental policies were enacted, they struggled and still struggle for the same social and economic footing. This sociohistoric effect of being kept down or defeated is much harder to overcome for them; there value system has been affected. I am optimistic things can improve for all minorities, but it will take understanding and support from those in power and a focus on community level action.

  3. @WVRunner
    As someone who lives across the ocean I thank you so much for your historical perspective . What about the Hispanic immigration – that was voluntary ? was America more accepting of Asian immigrants and made things more difficult for Hispanics or does it have to do with cultural values and beliefs ?

  4. How can children respect teachers and learn when they witness constant bashing and ridicule by the media and most notably by politicians. They are constantly labeled as overpaid, too many benefits, under worked and incompetent and now we expect children to respect them?
    In order to improve education in the US we don't need more dictates from the "education experts" (many of whom have never taught in a public school a day in their lives) but instead a change in attitude of the entire country.
    The current plethora of educational schemes will never suffice.
    We need an all out effort to popularize education like that which has been done with the NFL and rap music.
    You might say that can't be done but I will then point to the popularization of science and engineering in the 60s. It was done well and with great results. It yielded many of today's scientists and engineers who have catapulted us into the technological age of the twenty first century.
    Criticism, castigation and lip service will never cure the problem!
    Walt Sautter

  5. @AllanKatz
    Anthropologist John Ogbu places Mexican Americans in the group of involuntary immigrants because many were born into subordinate positions in this country and do not have a sense of positive expectation. He describes their oppositional traits as conditioned over time due to unsuccessful encounters with majority institutions, including schools. Where as some earlier immigrant groups saw cultural differences as barriers to be overcome, involuntary minorities see cultural differences as markers of identity to be maintained. Ogbu's theory is controversial, but does provide one perspective on the achievement gap of certain minorities. Most of what I've written here comes from Wayne Urban and Jennings Wagoner's book titled American Education, A History.

  6. I never believed in the idea of being smart based on test scores. It only puts a lot more trouble on students, and distracts them more instead of making the most of their potential. I don't think poverty is the whole issue though.

    Fregard Mosform

  7. Just desire to say your article is as surprisingchildcare hills area


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