Poverty and Education Policy

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Los Angeles Charter School Leadership Symposium.  By far, the highlight of the day, was the thoughtful (if very fast) speech and Q and A by Los Angeles Superintendent of Schools, Dr. John Deasy.

When Dr. Deasy talks, I find myself desperate for a court reporter or transcription app.  He launches ideas out there (admirably) so quickly that you only have a second to grasp with one before the next one is knocking at your door.  But, one particular point that he made stuck with me right away.  It is one that I have been encountering for years, and which I feel requires some nuance in response.  It is the issue of poverty and how it effects our schools (locally) and our school system (perhaps globally).

Sometime in the future, I hope to write about Paolo Freire and his thoughts around the ways poverty as an issue and the poor as a people are co-opted to create an education system that serves the needs of the wealthy.  I hope to also explore the data around comparative U.S. school performance once poverty is controlled for.  But for this post, I want to discuss the way that poverty is characterized as an issue in the context of the education reform movement.

In his talk, Dr. Deasy told us of students he had visited who were too poor to afford basic hygiene, never mind medical and dental care.  He spoke of students too poor to afford food or even homes.  He provided a stark and challenging picture of the increasing number of extremely poor in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Then, at the height of our empathy, he shifted gears and claimed that what we needed to do for these children was provide them with a highly effective (read “test score” boosting) teacher.

This claim was made essentially without evidence at a moment designed to appeal to our empathy and emotional reasoning.  It has some serious flaws.  It illustrates the way that education reform has become essentially a faith-based movement.  Without demanding or producing much evidence, the reform movement has adopted the idea that changing schools (in highly specific ways) will inevitably lead to a better society—one with more equality and less poverty.  My question is, if such a society is the goal, why don’t reformers work for it directly.  This reminds me of the idea that a national prohibition of alcohol would make people more Christian—it vaguely resonates on a values level, but is ultimately nonsense.

If you want to eliminate economic injustice, perhaps the best use of your time would be to Occupy Wall Street.  Or, if that doesn’t resonate, perhaps it would be best to work directly in communities, or to work politically for robust civil rights.  If you want to attack poverty, attack poverty, don’t attack teachers.  Certainly you should at least be questioning the rationale that claims that magically having higher multiple choice test scores will lead to the end of economic injustice.


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