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.