As Poverty Increases, Reformers Cling to the “New Status Quo”
By Tim Walker
A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education released new data that confirms what every advocate of public education has been trumpeting for years: poverty is a growing scourge on public schools. According to its 2013 Condition of Education report, one in five schools in the United States are considered high poverty. Twenty percent of public school students attended these schools in 2011, considerably more than the 12 percent who did in 1999–2000. That year, 45 percent of students attended a low-poverty school. Now only 25 percent do. Overall, approximately 10.9 million school-age children are from families living in poverty, a four percent increase from a decade earlier.
The trend is stark – poverty is affecting more and more students. And yet, the debate over education – at least how it plays out in the national media and many legislatures across the country- continues to freeze out substantive discussions about poverty and its obvious impact on student achievement. The ongoing fascination with market-driven education reform proposals and their media-savvy boosters leaves room for little else, although recent scrutiny over faulty standardized tests is reason for encouragement.
For years now, the American people have been told that the key to close achievement gaps is to use high-stake stest scores to evaluate teachers and schools, and close schools that are deemed “under-performing” and replace them with charter schools. Obviously it’s easier to champion these ideas once the discussion of poverty and its consequences for millions of students is severed from the equation.
The stakes are high. There is, after all, a lot of money to be made. Reform has become an industry.
“There are people who look at our investment in public education, and they see a treasure chest,” National Education President Dennis Van Roekel recently wrote in The Huffington Post. “Their first thought is, how can they tap into those funds for their own private gain? If just one percent of education spending were diverted to private profit, it would mean $5 billion a year in someone’s pockets.”
Source: U.S. Department of Education
Nowhere is this more evident than in many of the nation’s urban school districts, which have been serving as laboratories for some of the reform movements misguided ideas. No one questions the enormous challenges facing economically-disadvantaged students, but the relentless pursuit of market-based solutions continues, even as evidence mounts that claims of success are, at best, exaggerated.
That’s the conclusion of a recent analysis by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, a national campaign launched by the Economic Policy Institute to champion awareness of social and economic impacts on schools. The report finds that the reforms are falling way short of the promised results and are often harming the students who need help the most – while siphoning money away from initiatives that could actually produce more concrete results.
“It has been a decade since reformers promised a swift solution to America’s most challenging education problems,” Ellen Weiss, national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, writes in the introduction. “Instead of results, we have gotten rhetoric, and our children have fallen further behind. It is time we adopt policy solutions that match the depth and complexity of the problems and address them head on.”
The report looks at three so-called “reform cities” – Chicago, New York and Washington D.C. – and compares the impact of these reforms with other large, high-poverty urban districts. Reformers in all three cities declared that they had boosted student achievement and closed achievement gaps – claims that don’t stand up under scrutiny. Here are some of BBA’s key findings:
- Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in Chicago, New York and D.C. than in other urban districts.
- Value-added accountability turned off great teachers and drained experience from teacher pools in these cities, with no benefit to student achievement.
- School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.
- Charter schools providing only mixed benefits, but fell short of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable students.
Source: Broader, Bolder Approach to Education
To contrast what is happening in these cities, BBA called out Montgomery County, MD, for recognizing the impact of poverty and taking it on. Montgomery County may be more affluent, but the district has an ethnically-diverse population and a growing share of low-income students. However, the district favors a peer-assisted review system that focuses on teacher support, development, and collaboration, instead of test scores. Smaller classrooms and a well-rounded curriculum in the neediest schools are a priority and the district is committed to high-quality preschool. It’s no surprise that just last week, it was announced that low-income students in Maryland made more academic progress over the past eight years than any other state in the nation.
It is these types of initiatives that constitute real and effective education. After more than a decade, Weiss says it’s time to stop calling failed market-driven reforms daring and innovative and start stamping them with a logo they actually deserve – the “new status quo.”
Photo: Getty Images