We Aided Schools To End Poverty; Now We Must End Poverty To Aid Schools

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In rapid succession, we have been treated to--or should I say bludgeoned with--a number of devastating reports on the sorry state of American education, and there are more on the way. However, in the criticisms of American education that we are hearing and in the prescriptions for reform being made by prestigious panels, almost nothing is being said about the most significant factor associated with low student achievement--poverty--nor have we heard of the most promising solutions.

One of the strongest findings in recent social-science research is the link between low family income and low academic achievement. The impact of poverty on learning is pervasive and profound. Poverty leads to retardation, poor health, low expectations, discrimination, blaming the victim, exposure to violence, and low self-esteem. Moreover, children who grow up in poverty often live in unstable families and do not have resources to help them learn, or parents, however well-motivated, to assist them past the primary grades.

No doubt our schools need to be better than they are--much better. The current criticisms of the quality of American education serve us well by bringing attention to the critical and long-neglected need for reform. But missing from the picture is the fact that our schools have served a very different mix of students in the last two decades than the schools before them did. And the schools of the 1980's and 1990's will be even more different than those we know now.

Not only is the nation's student body becoming less affluent and less white, but individual school systems have become more diverse socially, racially, and ethnically. Desegregation has contributed to this, but so have other factors, including a phenomenal reduction in the student drop-out rate, migration of white students from one region to another, school-district consolidation, substantial differences in the birth rates of different ethnic and racial groups, the massive emigration of people from Southeast Asia and Latin America, and growing numbers of poor children in the population.

At the outset of the 1980's our schools--public and private--were becoming less white at a rate of more than 1 percent per year, and the proportion of children who lived in poverty was increasing. While many whites experience poverty, the proportion of black and Hispanic children who live in officially defined poverty--45 percent and 35 percent respectively--is awesome.

Perhaps the reason these major changes in the composition of the nation's student body have not been noted by reformers is that taking these changes into account would complicate the reform agenda and significantly increase the costs of substantial school improvement. We do need better-qualified teachers, higher standards, increased time devoted to academic work, more rigorous curricula, and other reforms now on the national agenda. But these strategies should benefit all children and should be pursued aggressively. We will need policies that go beyond these reforms if we are to improve the quality of our schools in fundamental ways.

The social and economic characteristics of the nation's children now and in the future have significant implications for educational and social policies in the 1980's. There are a number of ways to improve student learning that are being overlooked by almost all of the current efforts to improve the quality of our schools. Among the most promising of these strategies are:

Strengthening and extending early-childhood education programs. It has become clear that the return on investments in preschool education, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, exceeds the costs. Children who experience high-quality preschool programs do better in school, are healthier, and eventually earn higher incomes than do students from similar backgrounds who do not have the benefit of good early-childhood programs.

Improving, rather than abandoning, programs for students with special needs. There are those who believe our efforts to ensure equal educational opportunity are responsible for the alleged decline in the quality of our schools. Nonsense. Investments by federal, state, and local governments in programs for the disadvantaged and the handicapped, and successful efforts to desegregate schools, can be linked to higher test scores of students, among other benefits.

Numerous case studies support the finding that the decline in the achievement gap between blacks and whites is greatest in those areas of the country where desegregation has been most comprehensive and federal programs have had the greatest coverage. Moreover, we now know a lot more than we did just three years ago about why some of these programs are successful while others are not, and this knowledge should allow more effective use of funds in the future.

Developing ways to teach effectively in diverse classrooms. Our classrooms have never been as diverse as they are now. Effective strategies--such as cooperative team learning, grouping of students with different abilities, and peer tutoring--have been developed to take advantage of the opportunities and overcome the difficulties posed by this diversity. More research on this critical issue--clearly the most significant instructional problem many teachers confront--is needed. Schools of education and school systems' inservice-training programs must prepare teachers to use the knowledge we have.

Creating school environments that provide teachers with intrinsic rewards and opportunities for professional growth. Many of the studies of our schools point to the need for higher salaries for teachers and career ladders they can climb based on their performance. But most studies have ignored the evidence that the most demoralizing aspects of teaching are related to the virtual absence in schools of methods to gauge success, ways to interact with colleagues who have common problems and expertise to share, and opportunities to improve teachers' competence. We should create programs that put into use such concepts as team teaching, common curriculum development, and teacher-assisted inservice training.

Linking education to other social services, such as those that address inadequate nutrition, poor health, personal safety, and unemployment. Both educators and their critics argue that we have asked the schools to fill too many roles that are not fundamentally educational. But schools provide health care, attend to nutritional needs, and engage in job placement because such non-educational activities significantly affect the competence and motivation of students. If schools are to give up these responsibilities, we must find ways to ensure that someone assumes them. We must break down the political, organizational, financial, and professional barriers that separate schools from other social-service institutions--public and private--that are dedicated to children's welfare.

Most important, if our efforts to improve the schools for all children are not accompanied by attempts to reduce the incidence of poverty, we should not expect the changes advocated by such estimable groups as the National Commission on Excellence in Education to amount to much, at least for many of the nation's young people. In recent years, we have increased educational opportunities as a way to end poverty; now, wiser, we should try to end poverty in order to improve the quality of education.

In the meantime, we need to recognize that we will surely fail to improve our schools if we fail to recognize that in the school of the future excellence and extra concern for children with special needs are inextricably linked. One cannot know this by reading the numerous prescriptions for educational reform that now threaten--by their sheer number, the severity of their criticism, and the ambition of their prescriptions--to dull the public consciousness and traumatize our politicians.

Vol. 03, Issue 07, Page 24

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