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A poverty crisis, not a general education crisis

Date Published: 01/09/2014

Author: Dane Smith, President


USA Today recently published an op-ed with a headline as stark and simple as any you’ll see in the ongoing debate over causes and remedies for our widening student success gaps along lines of income and race, and our overall decline on global education rankings.

That headline: “A poverty, not education, crisis in the U.S.’’

Addressing the predictable hand-wringing over our nation’s latest and predictably dismal ranking on the latest PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores, Oliver Thomas, president of the Great Schools Partnership, noted these two supremely salient facts:

First, the U.S. has among the very highest poverty rates for children among our wealthy democratic peer nations. Finland, the country that perennially leads the world on the PISA test and other global comparisons, has a 5 percent child poverty rate. Ours ranges between 20 and 25 percent for children. It’s wretchedly Dickensian, but true: We allow at least one in five of American children to live in poverty for at least part of their lives, a rate that’s considerably higher than for adults overall and for the general population.

Second, Thomas asserts, when measuring school performance across nations for only those schools with a poverty rate of less than 20 percent, U.S. kids actually outperformed not only the Finns but almost all other nations and regions as well. These facts were actually much noted among mainstream analysts of the PISA scores.

So: When our public schools aren’t saddled with too many children whose lives are complicated by all the misery and distraction that poverty brings, our schools actually do as well or better than their counterparts in other nations.

These facts aren’t likely to settle forever the debate about whether to blame schools and teachers, or whether to blame the developed world’s most unequal socio-economic conditions, for our worrisome educational disparities and lagging international rankings. A no-excuses attitude is probably helpful as school leaders and reformers strive to overcome these odds.

In fact, Minnesota and our nation could replicate the best practices of both the Finnish education system AND a national social support structure in Finland that simply doesn’t allow more than 5 percent of its children to be impoverished. Reform ideas for schools must be considered, and charters schools or so-called “turnaround’’ schools in the public system that now are getting remarkable results with high-poverty percentages ought to be studied and emulated.

But we also simply must get realistic about ever reaching those pie-in-the-sky goals  — established under federal education programs such as “No Child Left Behind’’ or “Race to the Top” — without squarely confronting and neutralizing this enduring child poverty rate of 20 percent or more. (As an aside, the economic distress percentage in public schools is higher than the abject poverty rate. In Minnesota, about 40 percent of our enrollment now qualifies for free-and-reduced lunch programs, although only about 15 percent are in poverty by official standards).

The USA Today editorial cites an important Education Week commentary from early 2012, built on the bold assertion that “America does not have a general education crisis: we have a poverty crisis.’’

The authors, Michael A. Rebell and Jessica R. Wolff, who lead the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College, offer a hard truth, seldom expressed even by critics. They assert that existing targets and goals under the old NCLB and also under Race to the Top, to eliminate gaps and reach 100 percent proficiency on tests by 2020, are “inherently unattainable.” Unless, that is, policy-makers aggressively begin to provide “a broad range of comprehensive services to low-income students.”

Here is a list of such services that Rebell and Wolff recommend, developed after three years of work with a task force that included a wide variety of state education and human service experts, advocates and economists:

• Students must be entitled to educationally relevant supports in the areas of early-childhood education, expanded learning in out-of-school time, health care, and family engagement and support — that is, those services which directly affect success in school.

• Access to these comprehensive educational services is a legal right and must be made available to all children, not merely to some children when political trends and budget cycles coincide.

• Each state needs to create a policy infrastructure for fulfilling this right by crafting standards, parallel to K-12 education standards, in early childhood, expanded learning time, health care and health education, and family engagement.

• States can provide these services for a reasonable price. We (Rebell and Wolff) estimate it would cost about $4,200 per student per year (above current costs) over the 18 ½ years from birth through high school to provide the array of comprehensive services that poor children need. We believe the economic and social benefits to providing them would, in time, return more than double the value of the investments made.

The idea of a $4,200 increase in the per student investment for poor Minnesota children, something close to a third again more than the current K-12 per pupil average for all students, is no small ask.

But if it’s invested in the way Rebell and Wolff recommend, it’s likely to dramatically reduce budgetary demands elsewhere for health, human services, welfare and corrections, all of which are eating up an ever larger share of our public resources.

Minnesota can start by fully funding from our budget surplus the early childhood education scholarships that gained such an important beachhead in 2013. We can build out a Finnish-style system that realizes the capacity and improves the performance of every child in our state.

As Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman says in his speeches around the country urging early education investment to counter inequality and economic inefficiency, it’s not so much “redistribution” as it is “pre-distribution.”

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