StudentsFirst is Right to De-Emphasize Poverty

Michelle Rhee and her organization, StudentsFirst,created controversy this past week after Rhee articulated her education reform vision in a Meet the Press appearance and related TV ad. One common complaint about her argument, as discussed by Diane Ravitch among others, is that it doesn’t acknowledge the connection between poverty and struggling schools.

I’m not going to comment on why there is a correlation between poverty and low achievement–that is best handled by a sociologist. But I think that StudentsFirst and its allies are right to de-emphasize the role of poverty in the achievement gap, for the simple reason that it is more likely to help kids. The urban education crisis demands viable policies that will help kids, not “silver bullets” and trumpeted ideals.

It’s no secret that the U.S. has disturbingly high poverty levels, particularly among children. And it would be ridiculous to argue that this does not have an impact on education. A massive nationwide wealth redistribution, or at least redistribution of school funding, would likely fix a lot of the problems in our schools.

But here’s the thing: that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The continuing outrage over Obama’s healthcare reform bill–which is relatively moderate, of course– is perfect evidence that our country is not ready for radical progressivism. As I’ve written previously, we cannot depend on people to vote against their direct interests. To put it bluntly, in the current political climate “fixing” poverty is a pipe dream.

Now, do advocates of those radical reforms have good intentions? Of course. But good intentions do nothing for kids currently forced to attend ineffective, unsafe schools. Talk of systemic social problems as the cause of low achievement serves as little more than a convenient justification for inaction; it masks and ignores the urgency of the problem. Instead of maligning wealth distribution to little effect, let’s figure out what we can do tomorrow to help kids that are being failed by the system. Every day we do nothing is a moral failure. Imagine that you or your child had to go to a terrible school. Would you be willing to wait for a radical economic reorganization? I bet not.

Rhee understands this. It’s not that poverty is irrelevant, just that it is not useful or practical to emphasize it in discussions of education reform. She rightly supports school choice, tenure reform and other policies because they are realistic to implement, and so can  actually help kids. All education reformers ought to use that same logic. If we’re serious about improving the welfare of our nation’s children, we should pocket our ideals and acknowledge that we need feasible policies, not progressive grandstanding. 


18 thoughts on “StudentsFirst is Right to De-Emphasize Poverty

  1. Andrew MacGowan

    “We’re DATA DRIVEN! Except when we’re not. We’re RESEARCH-BASED! Except when we’re not.”

    Where is the data? What is the relationship between poverty and student achievement? Are you saying we can’t be honest, as our cause is so noble that we don’t have to be, that being honest hurts our noble cause?

  2. Duane Swacker

    You stated, “She rightly supports school choice, tenure reform and other policies because they are realistic to implement, and so can actually help kids. All education reformers ought to use that same logic. If we’re serious about improving the welfare of our nation’s children, we should pocket our ideals and acknowledge that we need feasible policies, not progressive grandstanding.”

    First, let’s talk about grandstanding. Grandstanding thy name is Rhee.
    Did you know she giddily bragged about taping students mouths shuts when she dallied as a teacher for a while?
    Did you know she is presently being sued by a DC teacher she fired after he tried to report cheating on the high stakes test, which is also under investigation and all under her reign?
    Do you know about her fraudulent petitions via where she tricks the average person to become a grassroots supporter as a way to hide her true astro turf billionaire dilettante supporters?
    And Here is one more of her shameless self promotions mocking the US Olympics and all US students:
    So much for that!!

    Please explain how school choice is an “ideal” public education policy,

    Public school teacher do not have and never have had “tenure”. We have “due process” rights to protect teachers from the whims of administrators and school boards. It is quite easy to get rid of “bad” teachers whether they have due process rights or not. I’ve seen it done. And if those supposed “bad” teachers are still in the classroom, isn’t it the administrations problem and fault not the other teachers????? Don’t blame the teachers for administration failures.

  3. Jacob W Post author

    Andrew – I’m saying that, while attacking poverty is indeed a noble cause, the realities of our political system make it an impractical route to ed reform.

    Duane – Choice, tenure reform, etc. are worth exploring because we actually have a chance of implementing them. That is my point.

    1. Duane Swacker

      So you think that it is okay for a teacher to be fired willy nilly as used to occur all the time before due process laws were put into place? You know be fired because the administrator had a child, cousin, crony who wanted your teaching position? Or for getting pregnant? Or for living with a person without being married. Or for being a homosexual?

      What exactly do you mean by “tenure reform”?

      And as far as choice goes I’ll let labor lawyer’s response on D. Ravitch’s blog suffice to explain the “choice” angle:

      “[Any] proposal to improve education by maximizing parental choice implicitly rests on the Adam-Smith-”invisible-hand” doctrine — that is, in a free market, the sellers who offer the best product will survive while the sellers who offer inferior products will fail.

      However, the invisible hand only works when the market works. As commenters have noted in responses to recent posts in Diane’s blog, there are major market failures in the school-choice marketplace, particularly in the low-SES/inner-city areas.

      Most buyers (parents) have little/no accurate information regarding the quality of competing schools and no practical way of obtaining accurate information.

      Similarly, many/most buyers (parents) do not know what mix of educational services would best serve their particular children’s education needs — i.e., strict vs. relaxed discipline, whole-language vs. phonics reading instruction, 1 well-paid experienced teacher or 2 poorly-paid inexperienced teachers/class; lots of computerized instruction vs. minimal computerized instruction.

      For even the most concerned, well-educated parents, the school choice decision would be largely a crapshoot and would probably be driven by factors unrelated to school quality — i.e., neighborhood rumors, where the children’s friends are going, ease of transportation.

      And, in low-SES areas (the only areas where we’re seriously concerned that school quality is too low), many of the parents will be relatively unconcerned with the school choice decision and virtually none of the parents will be well-educated. So, the school choice decisions of most parents in these areas will be entirely a crapshoot with the result that, in these areas, there is no reason to believe that Adam Smith’s invisible hand will operate — that is, there is no reason to believe that the schools chosen by the parents will be the schools that offer the best product.

      For these reasons, under Snyder’s proposal, there is a strong incentive for a school to minimize operating costs and little incentive for a school to improve instructional quality, particularly in low-SES areas. We’ll see an explosion of low-cost, low-quality for-profit schools serving the low-SES areas providing an inferior educational product while making a high profit margin.”

    2. Duane Swacker

      Jacob, (my oldest son’s name by the way)
      By the way did you read any of the articles about Rhee mentioned in my post? If so, what are your thoughts on each article?

      1. Jacob W Post author

        Duane- My point is separate from specific choice/tenure reform proposals. Educational inequity is a multifaceted problem, and unsurprisingly has many potential solutions. We should be discussing potential solutions that are politically feasible–which choice/tenure reform are, whether you agree with them or not–instead of those that are politically futile. It’s not that poverty doesn’t matter, just that the difficulty of fixing it makes it an inefficient way to help kids. I checked out those articles–not too interested in ad hominem/character assassination stuff.

    3. Disgruntled Teacher

      So because we can, we should? We also have the opportunity for public executions. Should we do that as well?

    4. Andrew MacGowan

      Jacob, with all due respect, you didn’s answer my questions, you misrepresent my statement and don’t understand the actual dynamics here. If your position is so virtuous the least you can do is be honest about it. By pretending student achievement and school performance are one in the same, we have backed ourselves into the corner of rewarding mediocre schools coasting on their parents’ incomes and education, and punishing high performing schools serving
      kids in poverty. You can’t know which schools are doing the better jobs if you pretend poverty is not a factor in student achievement. All I asked for is an honest approach to this issue.

      1. Jacob W Post author

        Andrew – I apologize if I misrepresented your statement–I assure you it was unintentional. I never said that poverty isn’t a factor isn’t a factor in student achievement, just that it is one of many. I think we should invest our time and energy into factors over which we have some control, and in the current political climate poverty/welfare state expansion is not one of those. In terms of evaluating schools (which I assume you are referring to when you mention “rewarding mediocre schools”), I agree that we should take into account differences between districts. We should focus on feasible, achievable school growth instead of strict lines.

      2. Andrew MacGowan

        Apology accepted. Poverty accounts for approximately 62% – 68% of the variance of student achievement. It goes higher once classroom poverty exceeds 70%. Aside from the national research that reveals 80% of all boys of incarcerated parents end up incarcerated themselves, I am unaware of any factor with this level of impact. Like you I have no use for those who use poverty as an excuse. But it is a factor, and we can’t help kids if we pretend about things. You can’t determine successful schools from failures by pretending poverty is not a factor. And I said nothing even related to “welfare state.”

        On another topic related to posting here, tenure was never intended to protect teachers their unions wouldn’t have their own kids in front of. I have seen unions spend $100 K and up to do just that. I’m in favor of unions – it’s not as though we’ve exactly entered the age of enlightened management – but the excesses of some have hurt the overall cause. The highest performing states – and countries – all have strong unions.

    5. E. Rat

      Just because something can be implemented doesn’t make it a good idea. Choice, ending tenure and the like are not well-researched, carefully-planned reforms. They’re also enormously political and make certain philosophical assumptions that are deeply problematic.

      Are you arguing in favor of implementing bad policy just because it’s possible, or do you actually believe these are worthwhile ways to improve educational outcomes?

      Personally, I’m not clear on why experimenting on our most at-risk children in our highest-needs schools is a great idea. If these are high-quality reforms, why not explore them in less challenged environments first?

  4. Pingback: What's So Positive About a Super-Cluster of Failure? (Or Why StudentsFirst's Ad Got It Right) | Dropout Nation: Coverage of the Reform of American Public Education Edited by RiShawn Biddle

  5. Kyle

    Jacob, you make solid, pragmatic points, and are clearly working hard not to respond to those who try to worsen the tone of the discussion in kind. Just wanted to give you props for trying to host an intelligent discussion.

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  7. John Foster

    You wrote: “She (Michelle Rhee) rightly supports school choice, tenure reform and other policies because they are realistic to implement, and so can actually help kids. All education reformers ought to use that same logic.

    Really. Where is your evidence that these Rhee-backed policies “actually help kids”? Do you have any? Is improving education really Rhee’s goal, or is it money, power and “fame”?

  8. John Foster

    Jacob, you wrote, “One common complaint about her argument, as discussed by Diane Ravitch among others, is that it doesn’t acknowledge the connection between poverty and struggling schools.”

    If you’re going to mention (the brilliant) Diane Ravitch—who is both a teacher and an educational historian—I think you should have published some of the blog you mentioned. I can see why you didn’t want to, however, given the facts she cites:

    A few facts:

    1) the US was never first on international tests. When the first test was given in 1964 (a test of math), our students came in 11th out of 12.

    2) On the latest international tests, students in American schools with low poverty (10% or less) came in FIRST in the world

    3) As poverty goes up in American schools, test scores go down.

    4) The U.S. has the highest child poverty rate–23%– of any advanced nation in the world.

    Here’s another VERY important video. And it’s well worth your time:

    Open your mind, please. You’re not seeing the entire picture.

  9. Pingback: The Urgency of Fixing Schools | A Skeptic's Politics

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