"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ignoring Poverty, Still...

This is why Diane Ravitch calls Valerie Strauss our nation's most indispensable education journalist.
The Elephant that Obama and Lauer Ignored: Poverty and Student Achievement

About two-thirds of the way through President Obama’s interview Monday with NBC’s Matt Lauer on school reform, I thought the two were about to really dive into the biggest issue plaguing the country’s most troubled schools.

Already discussed were the usual subjects raised by the Obama administration when it addresses school reform: charter schools, standards, how to get terrific teachers in every classroom, the length of the school year, Race to the Top and did I mention charter schools?

Then, there it was, the moment when Lauer raised the issue of poverty and the new Census Bureau figures showing that one in seven Americans live at or below the poverty line, defined as an annual income for a family of four of $22,000. That’s one in seven -- and that figure doesn’t include families of four with a $23,000 annual income.

I thought Lauer would make the obvious connection between poverty and student achievement. After all, the most consistent link in education and social science research is between family income and standardized test scores.

Today’s breed of school reformers, however, have ignored this link and adopted a “no excuses” policy, which essentially claims that good teachers can overcome anything, including medical, sociological and psychological problems that children who live in poverty bring into the classroom.

There is an oft-stated claim that three (or four, or five, depending on the source) “effective” teachers in a row can wipe out the effects of poverty. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made this claim today in an interview with Tom Brokaw as part of the network's Education Nation Summit.

There is no valid research to show this -- historian Diane Ravitch explains how this bogus notion gained credibility in Chapter 9 of her best-selling book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” -- but that hasn’t stopped people from wrapping policy around it.

David Berliner, regent’s professor emeritus at Arizona State University, a prominent researcher and educational psychologist, has studied how achievement is affected by poverty-induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that children bring to school.

These are six out-of-school factors Berliner has identified that are common among the poor and that affect how children learn, but that reformers effectively say can be overcome without attacking them directly: (1) low birth weight and nongenetic prenatal influences; (2) inadequate medical, dental and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics.

Statistics tell this tale. Here are some from “Early Warning!: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” the latest in a series of “Kids Count” analyses by the Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization that advocates for policies to help poor children and families.

The authors take the 2009 reading test results released in March from the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- considered to be the gold standard in K-12 standardized assessment -- and break down the numbers to show how well different groups of disadvantaged students are doing:
  • 90 percent of low-income black students in high-poverty schools were not reading at grade level by fourth grade.
  • 83 percent of poor black students in schools with moderate to low levels of poverty did not reach the goal.
  • 88 percent of Hispanic students in high-poverty schools missed the mark.
  • 82 percent of Hispanic students in schools with low or moderate rates of families living in poverty did not read at grade level.
So there Lauer was, on the verge of making the most important point in any discussion about student achievement, and ... he moved on. Without making it.

Obama and Lauer started talking about the poverty statistics in regard to the economy, tax cuts and the economic recovery, and the moment was lost.

So the most important issue in school reform was ignored again.

Those who raise this issue are often attacked for resisting change and wanting to maintain the lousy status quo. It’s a silly, false argument; critics of the Obama administration’s reform agenda want to get rid of bad teachers just as much as anybody else, but they are pushing for workable, fair reforms, not turning back the clock. But the agenda has powerful backers. Obama, for example.

This is why so many people who voted for Obama hoping that he would reverse this school reform view promoted by his predecessor, George W. Bush, in his No Child Left Behind law are terribly disappointed and increasingly angry.

Obama should know better as president. Lauer should have pushed him on this as a journalist.

That their discussion ignored the elephant in the room tells you everything you need to know about what is missing from today’s school “reform” efforts and why they are doomed to fail.

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