Why would we wait to improve education?


March 11, 2014 by juicefong

Education is supposed to be the great equalizer in America, opening new doors for children and families, and securing the bedrock of democracy—an educated populus. Of course the numbers show that impoverished students have disproportionately lower proficiency rates, lower high school graduation rates, and lower rates of college completion. It is a sad but true reality, but it can be changed.

Education historian Diane Ravitch is correct to call out the burdens of poverty that have an impact on these phenomena. Children are struggling: food insecurity, emotional stress, insufficient healthcare, inadequate access to early childhood education, and often the damning effects of intergenerational disenfranchisement. There is no denying these challenges and their role in student outcomes. Furthermore, it is a fair critique for Ravitch to say that many reformers have dismissed these realities as excuses.

But in her new book, Reign of Error, Ravitch insists, “Public education is not broken. It is not failing or declining.” She writes, “Public education is in crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it.” Dr. Ravitch would rather us stop efforts to reform our public education system, and instead spend all our time and effort tackling poverty.

There are two important points in here for reformers that I will re-frame and underscore: 1) Poverty plays a significant role in the academic and social success for many of our children, and these challenges should not be ignored. 2) Much of the American education system is, in fact working—and thus using blunt-force policy reforms can unnecessarily destabilize the system and the people who have worked tirelessly to undergird the very strengths of that system.

Like anything, the American education system has its roses and its thorns. I was fortunate to experience the rosy side of public education as a student, including the opportunity to attend a National Blue Ribbon school where my mother taught for over 30 years. I remember being so excited to meet my new teacher a week before school started on Back to School Night. I remember Mr. Martin giving me a special math problem for homework that I worked on for hours with my dad—to this day, I still remember how we solved it. I remember our “state of the art” computer lab where I learned to love computers on an Apple IIGS and printed those long banners with the perforated edges. There is so much brilliance in our public education system and as Dr. Ravitch encourages, we should not lose sight of that, nor should we stop thanking teachers for what they’ve given us.

As an adult, however, as a teacher in New York City, I saw a very thorny side of public education. I remember calling names off my roster for the first day of school, only to be met with confused faces as half of them were not in my class at all—it was a chaotic way to begin my teaching career. I remember one day handing out that night’s math homework assignment when one of my seventh graders looked at me and said, “You know, Mr. Fong. You’re the only teacher who gives us homework.” I froze in shock. I remember coming back from spring break to find my laptop and a colleague’s projector had been stolen out of our padlocked lockers. The building was only open to school staff over the break—the police suspected an inside job. These are not public education’s proudest moments.

So when Diane Ravitch says our system isn’t broken, I have to disagree. Yes, there is a vast rosy side—and we should applaud and strengthen the parts of the system that work. But there is too a thorny side, and where such mediocrity prevails, children—disproportionately poor and minority children—they are the ones whose futures suffer at our hands. No one should feel content about a system that is putting fewer than one in ten children who grow up in poverty on a path to college. What those on the rosy side must understand is that the systems that have allowed the very best of our education system to flourish are often the same systems that continue to cripple our greatest vulnerabilities.

Kids and educators deserve a school where they and their belongings are safe. Kids deserve a school where rigorous homework is the norm, not the exception. Kids and parents deserve a school where we get the class rosters right, well before the first day of school. And yes, Dr. Ravitch, I agree—kids deserve a school where they always have access to a nurse and a psychologist, and they get art and physical education every day. There is so much in our education system that we can improve. So why would we wait?

Diane Ravitch tells reformers to pump the breaks. Everyone working to dramatically change the current system: stop right there. Let’s spend the next few years, maybe even the next decade (miraculously) eradicating poverty, then you can get back to fixing our education system.

“Don’t touch the education system,” decry her devout followers. “Leave it alone because things are fine. And where it’s not, it’s poverty’s fault. Focus on poverty—not schools.”

I’m sorry. No—I’m not sorry. We can and we must focus on both poverty and education at the same time.

It is a false dichotomy to think we have to choose between addressing poverty and addressing education. We can address both. So why would we wait? Our country should be doing more to alleviate the challenges of poverty. The proposed raise to the minimum wage, or reversing the recent cuts to the food stamp program would be good places to start. The healthcare overhaul will help, too.

But we can also do more to improve our education system, at the same time. Whether you think public education in America deserves a gold medal or a pink slip, there is certainly room for improvement, and there always will be. With the competitive global world we live in, can we ever afford to be complacent about the quality of our schools? Let us take on the spirit of kaizen—continuous improvement—towards our public education system. Indeed, this will require a sense of humility, to acknowledge where we shine and to confront the truth where we don’t.

Despite poverty’s challenges, teachers and schools have always shown that a great education can help children overcome the odds and that a great system of schools can strengthen the foundation of a community. So why would we wait? The question is not whether it is possible for each of our children to thrive—we know poverty does not have to be destiny. Instead, the question is how to ensure more and more children have access to the kind of schools and teachers that we know are capable of helping them break the odds and achieve their dreams.

Our country is full of great teachers—how do we find a way to ensure that a girl growing up in Compton is just as likely to have an excellent teacher as a girl growing up in Beverly Hills? That is what we should be asking. Teachers and students show us every day that it is possible to deliver on the promise of public education. Poverty may present its challenges, but the power of great teachers and educators knows no bounds. I refuse to believe that teaching impoverished children is a Sysiphean task. And I refuse to believe that paying teachers on a despicably low salary scale that ignores quality is going to create equity and excellence across all neighborhoods.

Poverty, education—which is the chicken and which is the egg? Debating this gets us nowhere. I’m not interested in whether education is to blame for poverty or vice versa. Rather, I am energized by the fact that education is a known force that can battle poverty and revitalize communities. Let’s stop the blame game and improve an education system that we know to have more potential. Because can you really imagine a world wherein poverty is magically fixed without our education system becoming stronger?

Yes Dr. Ravitch, poverty matters. But schools matter, too. And when I look around, I see much to celebrate and yet so much still to work on.

So…why would we wait to improve education? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

You can find me on Twitter, @jgfong.

Standard disclosure: I work for Teach For America but my blog and my tweeting are entirely independent of my job responsibilities. My blog posts are not commissioned, nor do they require approval from the organization. In line with all of this, the opinions expressed herein are solely mine, unless you happen to agree.

5 thoughts on “Why would we wait to improve education?

  1. Joe Nathan says:

    Dual approach – inside and outside schools – makes a lot of sense to me.

  2. Reign Of Error chapter 14 page 136 “We must work both to improve schools and to reduce poverty, not to prioritize one over the other or say that schools come first, poverty later.”

    • juicefong says:

      I’m glad she and I agree. :)

      I’ve also heard Ravitch say, “The common core…is an answer to a problem we don’t have. We have a problem of poverty and the common core does nothing to address that particular problem.” We can’t just dismiss every real education issue by saying it doesn’t solve poverty.

  3. I completely agree with the idea that anti-poverty initiatives and education reforms should complement each other. However, while I appreciate your acknowledgment towards the beginning of this piece that “[p]overty plays a significant role in the academic and social success for many of our children, and these challenges should not be ignored,” you reverse course towards the end of your post and downplay its importance: “Poverty may present its challenges, but the power of great teachers and educators knows no bounds.” Your statement implies that educators influence outcomes more than poverty and privilege, an implication that is factually inaccurate.

    Any honest examination of education research (http://34justice.com/2013/12/25/approaching-education-data-the-nate-silver-way/) yields one very clear conclusion – poverty explains inequality far better than school-related factors. Even studies commonly cited by “reformers” (like Raj Chetty’s most recent study on value-added models, for example) reinforce this conclusion. You are suggesting that there’s significantly more class mobility in the United States than actually exists, and that suggestion is deeply problematic. It implies a rough equivalence of impact between anti-poverty initiatives and education reforms.

    I’ll ask you the same question Chris Hayes asked Michelle Rhee in a semi-recent interview (http://www.msnbc.com/all-in/watch/americas-inequality-problem-80704579613), a question that she refused to answer: if you could wave a magic wand and either make all of a student’s teachers excellent or move that student out of poverty, which option would you choose? Empirical data clearly indicates that, given that choice, we should move the student out of poverty. We obviously would like to help the student’s teachers improve simultaneously, and I support doing so, but it’s essential to note that addressing poverty matters more than addressing teacher and school quality because we otherwise identify the wrong allies and enemies. Take the case of Bill de Blasio, for example, a politician who has long championed the interests of underprivileged populations and continues to push important anti-poverty initiatives as mayor. No matter your opinion on any of de Blasio’s education policies, the comprehensive impact of his agenda is overwhelmingly positive for children in low-income communities. The reformer tendency to malign politicians like de Blasio is myopic and counterproductive at best (and is at worst a calculated attempt to undermine anti-poverty initiatives).

    You also imply that the quality of teaching at low-income schools is significantly worse than the quality of teaching at high-income schools when you write: “how do we find a way to ensure that a girl growing up in Compton is just as likely to have an excellent teacher as a girl growing up in Beverly Hills?” I can’t speak to Compton and Beverly Hills, but I can tell you that poor students in San Jose Unified School District have as good a chance of being assigned an excellent teacher as I had at the expensive and high-performing private school I attended from 7th to 12th grade. The vast majority of research, even that conducted by reform favorites like Chetty, again suggests that “the quality of teaching…does not differ substantially across schools.” Compton would need significantly better teachers than Beverly Hills to reduce the opportunity gap, and even then, as the research indicates, we’d still have a significant gap.

    My other major issue with your post is its characterization of critiques of the ed reform movement. You’re right to denounce the “[d]on’t touch the education system” approach, but while Ravitch occasionally writes pieces that sound like she’s taking that approach, most of her her readers argue for exactly what you’re advocating: the simultaneous pursuit of anti-poverty initiatives and school reforms. They just disagree about which school reforms make a difference. Many Ravitch followers oppose high stakes standardized testing, the dismantling of teacher employment protections, the rapid expansion of charter schools, and the Common Core. Ravitch followers tend to support class size reductions, the reintroduction of elective classes and school health programs and personnel, and clearly defined, rigorous standards for teacher evaluation. I’d be happy to discuss the merits of different reform ideas with you in further detail (you can check out http://34justice.com/2014/01/28/vergara-v-california-the-agendas-the-facts-and-recommendations-for-california-law/ if you want to know my suggestions for reforming California’s teacher employment law), but I mostly want to point out that ed reform critiques are more often about the quality of proposed reforms than the topic of reform itself.

    Again, I agree with your basic point that we can and should work on both poverty and education. But our students depend on us to be honest and careful when assessing the relative impact of both.

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