Federal Opinion

Dialogue with the Gates Foundation: Can Schools Defeat Poverty by Ignoring It?

By Anthony Cody — August 13, 2012 14 min read
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This post is the third round of a five-part exchange with the Gates Foundation. This post can also be viewed and commented on over at the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimist blog. This time I get to go first, and our topic is this:

What is the role of education reform in relation to the problem of family poverty? What is the best way to achieve greater equity in educational and life prospects for children of poverty?

The Gates Foundation’s central slogan is “All lives have equal value,” and the thrust of their work around education has been promoting institutional and political reform, based on the premise that this will increase equity, especially for the poor. The Gates Foundation has avoided systematic efforts to achieve equity of resources for schools and the children who attend them; instead, it asserts that teacher effectiveness is the best lever in this regard, and it has focused most of its research and advocacy on promoting public investment in systems that measure and promote teacher effectiveness.

In the name of reform, the Gates Foundation has wielded its political influence to effectively shift public funds, earmarked for the service of poor children, away from investment in those children’s direct education experience. Through the Race to the Top and NCLB waiver conditions, the US Department of Education has instead dedicated public resources to creating state and federal mandates for the Gates Foundation’s costly project -- making sure every aspect of our educational system is “driven by data.” The future public expenditures required by the transition to the Common Core, with its greatly expanded assessment systems, will further deplete resources available for classrooms.

This is a huge error.
In the US, the linchpin for education is not teacher effectiveness or data-driven management systems. It is the effects of poverty and racial isolation on our children.

As I discussed last week, the differences between teachers only account for at most 20% of the variance in student test scores, and more than 60% of score variance correlates to out-of-school factors. We cannot solve the problem of educational inequity while we ignore the inequitable and inadequate resources available to low-income children in their homes and communities, as well as their schools.

In this post I want to explore some of the reasons I believe we must take on the effects of poverty, based on my 24 years working in high poverty schools in Oakland, California.

First of all, let’s take a closer look at what “out of school factors” really are all about. One of the central tenets advanced by many education reformers is that poverty is used as an excuse, a bogus justification for poor academic performance, that allows schools and teachers in poor neighborhoods to remain ineffective. Therefore, the best way to beat poverty in these circumstances is to set high expectations for everyone, hold teachers accountable for increasing test scores, and accept no excuses. So I want us to understand just what these schools, teachers, and children are up against.

The Impact of Violence

This 2007 report in the San Francisco Chronicle described research done by the Stanford Early Life Stress Research Program.

As many as one-third of children living in our country's violent urban neighborhoods have PTSD, according to recent research and the country's top child trauma experts - nearly twice the rate reported for troops returning from war zones in Iraq.
PTSD can look a lot like attention-deficit disorder, ...with the lack of concentration, poor grades and inability to sit still. ...it almost guarantees that these students - often African American or Latino and low income - won't do as well on standardized tests as their wealthier, whiter and safer peers.

Another researcher, Patrick Sharkey, reported dramatic drops in test scores for children who were exposed to violence.

If a murder occurred in a child's neighborhood -- an area of roughly six to 10 square blocks as denoted by the U.S. Census -- the children's test scores fell by an average of half a standard deviation, Sharkey reported.

This map from the city of Oakland shows the distribution of murders from 2008 to 2010. These are the same neighborhoods where most of the city’s African American and Latino children live.

Health, Housing and Child Development in Poverty

But violence is only one of the ways poverty intervenes in the lives of our students. Here are some others.

Early Vocabulary: The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University reminds us:

Early experiences and the environments in which children develop in their earliest years can have lasting impact on later success in school and life. Barriers to children's educational achievement start early, and continue to grow without intervention. Differences in the size of children's vocabulary first appear at 18 months of age, based on whether they were born into a family with high education and income or low education and income. By age 3, children with college-educated parents or primary caregivers had vocabularies 2 to 3 times larger than those whose parents had not completed high school. By the time these children reach school, they are already behind their peers unless they are engaged in a language-rich environment early in life.

In Oakland, more than one in six children now live in extreme poverty, according to the 2012 Kids Count Data Book. That means a family income of less than half the poverty level, which is set at $22,113 for a family of four.

Trina Shanks has done research that documents some of the affects poverty has on children. Food insecurity hits children hard, especially infants, who may be developmentally delayed as a result of malnutrition. Stress from a variety of sources - parental unemployment, depression, inadequate housing, neighborhood violence, can rise to toxic levels that adversely affect children. This sort of stress can even have a negative effect on brain development.

In 2009, a short article in the San Francisco Chronicle carried this news:

Almost 200 Oakland residents, including 74 children, were forced from their homes Tuesday after city officials condemned a refuse-strewn apartment complex in the 2500 block of Foothill Boulevard as unsafe, city officials said. The buildings had no running water, illegal wiring, boarded up windows and rodent infestations, officials said.

Of course the 74 children living here were displaced - and shifted who knows where. But these children, up to that point, were presumably enrolled in their neighborhood schools, where they would arrive just like any other child. But unlike the children in wealthy neighborhoods, they did not go home to a safe house with warmth and running water.

The number of students receiving free or reduced price lunches has grown significantly, and in 2008-2009 44% of our nation’s students were eligible. In the state of California, 52% are eligible. In Mississippi, 68% are eligible. In the city of Oakland, 68% of the students were eligible.

It is estimated that 16 million children in America are at risk of hunger.

One child in ten has been foreclosed upon.

More than one million students are homeless.

More than two million Americans are incarcerated, and they are overwhelmingly the poor. One out of every nine African American children has a parent in prison. Incarceration has a significant negative effect not only on the person incarcerated, but also on their children.

As Michael Marder has illustrated so clearly, nothing makes sense in education without understanding the role of poverty. This graph shows the way SAT scores in the state of Texas correlate with race and income.

In the Race to the Top, the US leads in one area only, child poverty, with 22% of our children living below the poverty level.

(image from The Flat World and Education, Darling-Hammond.)

This does not mean we should not seek the best teachers and schools for these children - of course we should. But it does explain why research shows that the difference between teachers only accounts for at most 20% of the variance in student test performance.

What does this mean for teachers?

I have given a lot of statistics that demonstrate the impact of poverty on student outcomes at the broadest level. Let me describe what this looks like from the standpoint of a teacher in a high poverty school.

The school year starts and on day one there is a nice mix of students. They show up early, and sometimes parents even come by the classrooms poking their noses in to make sure everything is ok at the big middle school. Over the next few weeks another sort of student straggles in. These are the ones who did not know school had begun. Or did not think anything important would happen the first week. They do not have any materials, and when you tell them they need a pencil and binder every day, they say they do not have one. Attendance is spotty - sometimes there are little brothers or sisters to take care of, other times transportation issues, no money for the bus.

In one class I had about four students who were repeating the sixth grade. Some of them had also been held back in the first or second grade as well, so they were two years behind their peers. Many of these students have decided that they are not likely to win recognition as scholars, and are determined to get respect for their street smarts and toughness. Some of them have parents who are incarcerated, and thus live with other relatives, or in group or foster homes. I do my best to reach these students, to get them interested in doing experiments, to convince them that they have some talents that can be developed with practice. But it is tough going, and when the tests come around, most of these students show themselves to be significantly below grade level.

The description of behaviors triggered by violence rings true. Many of these students are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, and some are medicated so they can sit still in class. Often they are easily distracted, and this can create a steady stream of small disruptions in class, making it difficult for anyone to concentrate on the lesson at hand. Since they want respect for their toughness, sometimes they challenge my authority as the teacher to get it. The school’s discipline and support systems are sometimes overwhelmed, and students that are sent out of class for disrupting behavior often return within a few minutes, with no change in behavior. There is pressure on the system not to suspend students, but there are few resources to respond to the underlying emotional needs of these children, so their trauma is managed, and their behavior is tolerated up to a point.

This is a portrait of the reactions of the alienated and disenfranchised.
These are students who can not believe in the American dream, because they do not see it reflected in their neighborhoods, homes, or the physical facilities at their schools. They see a different America.

Our education reformers want teachers to come into the schools like knights on white horses, plaster the walls with college logos, and push students to new heights with our high expectations. I have seen this in dozens of classrooms of novice teachers, often associated with programs like Teach For America. We are pretending that there is some sort of level playing field here, but we are failing to create such a field. Instead, we just pretend these students are going to be able to compete with their well-heeled counterparts in the suburbs for shrinking higher educational opportunity. For most of them it is an empty promise.

At the end of the day, whatever advances teachers can make with their students are swamped by the statistical mix of unsupportable life circumstances, and progress is not “adequate”. There will be a few individuals who emerge from this system as success stories, by luck, by extraordinary resilience, and through the dedication of their teachers. Education reformers elevate these exemplars to prove that “anyone” can make it, and condemn the teachers for failing to accomplish similar results for all their students. The whole system is built around the idea that anyone can make it and therefore we will ensure the highest level of success if we attempt to hold everyone to the same high standards, while largely ignoring the conditions in which they live.

“Impatient” Reformers Want Schools Alone to Remedy the Effects of Poverty

A couple of years ago I was part of an event at UC Berkeley called Grading the Teachers, where economist Eric Hanushek was a panelist. Dr. Hanushek said that if we could improve our scores to where Finland is, it would have a value to the US economy of $100 trillion. I interrupted to point out that Finland has a child poverty rate of about 2%. He responded:

There is no doubt, no researcher that I know that has ever said, that family background [note that he refuses to use the term "poverty."] is not extremely important. It's not an issue. We understand that. We don't have the means to change families. Or we're not willing to use that as a nation. We DO have the means to adjust what our schools do. That's our public policy instrument. That's why some of us spend all of our time not looking at how to change families, but how to change the schools. There's absolutely NO evidence that if we gave $10,000 a year more income to poor families that the achievement of those kids would increase. There's absolutely none. That's not to say we might not, for societal purposes, and I believe it, that we should worry about the income levels of the poor people. But not because that's the way to solve our school problems, or that we have to wait until we equalize incomes to address some of these achievement problems that are extraordinarily real.

So this is the justification of the “impatient” reformers for disrupting and shutting down schools, dismissing whole staffs, and dislocating thousands of struggling poor children into other under-resourced buildings. We cannot WAIT to repair poverty. We have to tackle the problem where it is manageable and surmountable, in our schools. We cannot hold society accountable, so instead we will hold teachers and administrators accountable for their students’ performance.

Academic performance has not improved under these mandated data-driven measures, and actual studies point to a decade of stagnation.

Of course the country that Hanushek cited as our rival has taken an entirely different course of action. There, schools have not been left to handle these problems alone. Former director of education in Finland, Pasi Sahlberg writes:

High-equity education in Finland is not a result of educational factors alone. Basic structures of the Finnish welfare state play a crucial role in providing children and their families with equitable opportunities for starting a successful educational path at age of 7. Early childhood care, voluntary free preschool (attended by 98%), comprehensive health services, and preventive measures to identify possible learning and development difficulties before children start schooling is accessible to all.
The education system performance has to be seen in the context of other systems in society, for example, health, environment, rule of law, governance, economy, and technology. It is not only that the education system functions well in Finland, but that it is part of a well-functioning democratic welfare state. Attempts to explain the success of the education system in Finland should be put in the wider context and seen as part of the overall function of a democratic civil society.

Some Reformers DO Take On Poverty

The idea that we will create greater equity for the children now in our schools by raising standards, preparing them all for college, and holding their teachers accountable for their achievement is wrong and should be discarded. Children in poverty need much broader supports for their development and learning that take on the effects of poverty directly, of the sort recently suggested by the Center for Mental Health at UCLA.

The Broader and Bolder Approach offered a framework several years ago that suggests we address the effects of poverty and isolation as we pursue equitable outcomes.

Advocates for equity have also launched the Opportunity to Learn campaign, highlighting many of these issues.

We need greater prenatal programs to promote health of new-borns. We need early childhood nutrition and education programs. We need to end the “war on drugs,” dramatically reduce the levels of incarceration, and shift resources towards services for impoverished families. We need reforms that directly go after poverty, such as an increase of the minimum wage. The greatest reduction in poverty in our nation coincided with the expansion of collective bargaining for workers, so we should be supporting unionization, not just of teachers, but of all workers.

History shows that the greatest closure of the achievement gap took place during the years that the US took concrete steps to economically and racially desegregate schools. But in the past two decades this has been reversed, and now segregation is greater than it has been since the 1950s. We hear the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement, but the reality is a reversal of many of the gains of that era, and a dramatically widening gap between the rich and poor.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the same time that societal wealth has flowed ever more to the top one percent of our households. The heirs to the Walmart fortune have as much wealth as the bottom forty percent of American families.

And the bank “bust” of the past several years has been paid for not by bankers, but by our cities, states and school districts. This was a transfer of the wealth from the ordinary public to the pockets of the already wealthy. With this loss of wealth, we are losing the power to democratically determine public education policies for our children. Our public schools are systematically de-funded under “austerity” budgets made necessary by this theft of public resources.

While Bill Gates stated in January that the wealthy should pay more taxes, it is hard to find evidence of this priority in looking at grants the Gates Foundation has given. When Mr. Gates spoke to governors a few weeks later in February, he did not mention his desire to raise taxes on the wealthy. Nor did he mention the problems of poverty, nor did he encourage them to find the moral courage to defend funding for their schools, or services for the poor. Instead, he suggested that they might save money by increasing class sizes, and ending the practice of rewarding teachers for advanced degrees.

Most of the projects supported by the tax-exempt Gates Foundation take a “money is not the answer” approach. Yet if our schools are to even begin to address inequities, we must begin by funding them adequately. Our nation’s public school funding is in a shambles, and the schools attended by the poor are, by and large, funded at far lower levels than even the public schools attended by wealthier students. The “savage inequalities” that Jonathan Kozol wrote of two decades ago are, shamefully, even worse.

The numbers tell the tale:

According to the National Center of Education Statistics, the wealthiest school districts spend far more per pupil than the national average. The Darien, Conn., public school district spends $15,433 per student per year, more than 50% above the U.S. average of $10,591. The Edgemont, N.Y., public school spends more than $25,000 per student annually. Barbourville, Ky., the poorest school district, spends less than one-third that amount.

If money doesn’t matter, why not spend our public assets on our neediest children, rather than those who come to school with the greatest advantage? If class size does not matter, why do the schools of the privileged, including the school attended by the Gates family, have class sizes of around 16?

Questions for the Gates Foundation
I want to revisit one of the questions I posed at the end of my last post.

How can teacher effectiveness accomplish the Herculean task society has set for it, of eliminating the achievement gap, when the differences between teachers only account for, at most, about 20% of the variance in student outcomes?

To this question, I want to add the following:

Why doesn’t the Gates Foundation, instead of giving funds to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which never met a tax it didn’t hate, support a campaign to increase taxation on the wealthy, to pay for education and anti-poverty programs?

Why do the Foundation’s philanthropic efforts not target inequity in education at the root - where the biggest differences can be made, rather than accept these conditions as immutable?

How can the Foundation justify its expenditures to advocate for public investment in data systems when the basic needs of children aren’t being met in schools? Why not strongly advocate for a base level of adequate funding for all schools, and the taxes necessary to support this?

Why not support concrete assistance to schools currently being systematically de-funded? How about supporting the expansion of libraries, so poor children have access to books? How about smaller class sizes, which make a huge difference in the ability of teachers to give individual attention to struggling students?

Readers: What do you think about the way the Gates Foundation is approaching education reform? Are they on the right track?

All graphs used with permission.

[Editors’ Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation helps support coverage of business and innovation in Education Week.]

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.