Children, Poverty, and Outcomes: Who's Distorting Reality?

Yesterday, I happened upon the latest blog post of Amanda Ripley, an up-and-coming edu-pundit who recently changed focus from how the brain works under extreme duress to how other countries “build” smarter kids.  “Reality Distortion Field,”  is a frontal assault on Diane Ravitch and others who declare poverty “a problem so intractable that schools cannot be expected to overcome it.”  The same debate, she states, gleefully, citing an old story from the New York Times, was used to defend low-performing, segregated public schools in New York City in the 1960s.

Wouldn’t you know that on the same day Ripley lobbed her grenade, taking Ravitch to task for some messy data analysis, NYC’s hometown newspaper featured an op-ed by Helen Ladd, a public policy and economics professor at Duke, and Edward Fiske, former NY Times education editor.  “Class Matters.  Why Won’t We Admit It?” they ask.   In education reform circles, they remind us, it’s become fashionable to accuse anyone who even mentions the “P” word of “letting schools off the hook—or what Mr. Bush [architect of NCLB] famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” 

The new edu-pundits, it should be noted, have no truck with the idea of low expectations, and are careful to dissociate themselves from anything that smacks of the retro “blame-the-victim” deficit model.  Ed Reform 2.0 is based on a fervent belief in the infinite perfectibility of schools, educators, and the systems they inhabit—a universe in which standards, accountability, and corporatization promise to eradicate the ills of what everyone agrees is a badly damaged enterprise.   Educators in higher-performing systems across the globe, Ripley claims, acknowledge poverty, but they think it is their problem, “a problem so intractable that our schools must be outstanding in order to help overcome it.”  

How can anyone argue with outstanding schools?  Or taking ownership of poverty?  But it’s quite another thing to expect educators to tackle the problem alone.

Today, 25 percent, or one in four, of children under age 6 live in poverty.   Positive outcomes for  these children, including their readiness for school, ongoing academic success, and future productivity, depend not only on their intellectual development, but also on their physical and social-emotional health, and on their immediate environments, most importantly, their families and neighborhoods.  Poverty can shape children’s long-term health and development in profound ways.  When little ones are exposed to “toxic stress,” or prolonged physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, parental substance abuse, violence, or the considerable burden of family economic hardship without adequate adult support, their development and learning can be severely compromised.

While voluminous research supports the benefits of high-quality early care and education, we are not going to change children’s outcomes without more holistic community supports and interventions.  Promise Neighborhoods, the federal initiative based on Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone model, is taking this tack.  States and communities across the country have long been creatively using education funding—including Title I—to support services for children beginning at birth. In Wisconsin, for example, the Appleton Area School District has adopted a comprehensive Birth to Five plan, which includes literacy programs for parents delivering at local hospitals; community parent education workshops; Parents as Teachers home visiting; Early Childhood Special Education, Title I Preschool and Even Start Family Literacy.

The stories of teachers and schools that have changed children’s trajectories are legion.  Education has historically been, and must continue to be, a path out of poverty.  As a nation, we should never aspire to less.  But as we shoot one silver bullet after another at the intractable challenges of education reform, we need to confront the reality and ravages of poverty head-on, lest our quest for school improvement  be permanently derailed.


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2 comments to Children, Poverty, and Outcomes: Who’s Distorting Reality?

  • Emily Forsberg

    I am a teacher of Pre-Kindergarten students who all qualified to be in my class because of their socio-economic status. They are children from low-income families. These children all need large amounts of attention and nurturing from their teachers. While the assessment scores from my class do show lower performance than the other grades, socio-economic status is not the sole indicator of achievement. I have several students who come from stressful home lives who are incredibly intelligent and out-perform their peers. However, I have several students who struggle and I can see the achievement gap developing and widening. I am working with these students in small groups and individually to work to narrow the achievement gap and help them experience success. I would hope that all teachers of students from low-income families would do the same and work to decrease the achievement gap that can develop as a result of socio-economic status.

  • [...] Mike Rose, author of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance, not surprisingly weighs in on the benefits of adult education as an inter-generational anti-poverty strategy, and laments “the troubling increase in policy interventions in poor people’s lives that don’t address the fact that they are poor.”  I’m with him on that one (See “Children, Poverty, and Outcomes: Who’s Distorting Reality?”) [...]

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