Archives for category: Poverty

Prachi Srivastava, a professor in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, is an expert on the subject of low-fee private schooling. She writes here on the Oxfam blog in response to The Economist’s paean of praise to for-profit private schooling in poor countries. She reviews the research and says that The Economist oversimplified the subject. The research does not support the simplistic view that the private sector is invariably better than the public sector as a provider of education in poor countries. The findings are in fact nuanced.

And this problem remains, after all the research is reviewed:

The growth of the low-fee private sector has been widely attributed to dysfunctional state schools. But state failure should not be tacitly accepted, certainly in light of the evidence. The fact remains that the majority of the poorest, most disadvantaged children in poor countries continue to access dysfunctional state schools. And all of us, including the private sector, have a role to play in making sure they get better.

Edward Placke is Superintendent of the Greenburgh-North Castle Unified School District, which serves students from urban areas who are primarily of African, Caribbean and Spanish heritage. All students are eligible for the federal free lunch program and are identified as disabled, primarily emotionally disabled. He wants the public to know that these students have been shamefully neglected in the state budget, for years.

This is his message:


Shame on New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. Shame on New York state’s legislators.
Once again the children with the most significant disabilities who live in our most impoverished communities throughout New York are totally ignored by our representatives. These are the students who their respective community school
districts have been unable to educate due to their significant academic and behavioral challenges. I use this term representatives lightly in that our elected officials only represent major contributors, special interest groups and benefactors; donors who ensure their reelection; contributors who unashamedly advocate for privatization of our public schools, contributors who advocate the dismantling of our unions; public rhetoric that demeans our public school teachers and administrators ;contributors who have little or no training in education and; representatives who support an educational reform movement that is ill conceived and will prove ineffective for students of all abilities.
The New York State assembly, senate and the Governor’s office represent all that is insensitive, corrupt and self-serving in our state and country, particularly around the students we are blessed to serve; those with significant disabilities.
Their latest demonstration of the aforementioned disturbing variables is their inability to pass a law this session that would provide alternative educational programs, which include the 853 schools and the public special act school districts (and I underscore the public nature of the public special act school districts), with a minimal annual increase in funding. Unlike other public school districts in New York, these vital educational programs as of this time will be funded at prior year rates for current year costs. The sustainability of these programs that consistently produce outstanding outcomes are in jeopardy of continuing to educate New York’s most vulnerable students. It should be noted that historically funding for these educational programs have at times been frozen which has caused enormous fiscal stress.
Shame on our so called representatives. Despite their outright disregard for our student bodies my advocacy and the advocacy of those with like minds will not rest until the education we offer is comparable to community public schools. Our mission to ensure our students successfully cross “The Bridge To Adulthood” and overcome the many societal obstacles they had no part in creating. I urge our representatives to rethink their position on this bill and join me in advocating for this highly deserving population of students.
Ed Placke,Ed.D.
Greenburgh North Castle UFSD

EduShyster interviewed Seth Rau, a prominent young reformer in Nevada, about the Silver State’s “universal choice” or “Education Savings Account” program, which gives every student $5,700 to spend in the school of their choice.

Rau is policy director for the reform organization “Nevada Succeeds.” He is an alum of Teach for America; he taught for two years in a charter school. The conservative Thomas B. Fordham named him the “Wisest Wonk” in the nation for a paper in which he said that schools should be regulated lightly, like brothels in Nevada.

Despite his sterling reform bona fides, Rau is not your typical reformer. He does not celebrate the great successes of charters and vouchers. He is honest about the flaws of both, including the ESA that was recently adopted in Nevada.

EduShyster asked where should a student with a backpack full of $5,700 go to school.

He answered that the charters in Nevada were nothing to brag about:

In Nevada, the miracle of the high-performing seats that you’re so familiar with in Massachusetts never happened. For the most part our district charter schools are strongly underperforming. There’s also been a heavy reliance on virtual charter schools. More than a quarter of the students who attend charters attend virtual schools, which have been a disaster for many kids. For example, Nevada Virtual Academy was the largest charter school in the state and had a 32.5% graduation rate in 2011-2012.

The charter sector is growing, he said, especially in suburbs where students are high-performing. The charter scores are rising because “they’re not serving students who are actually in poverty.”

When EduShyster asks about access to private schools, Rau says that those schools are for the children of the 1%. So who will benefit from the ESA-style vouchers?

Rau answers:

I’ve heard people extolling Education Savings Accounts, saying that this is going to be the great solution to poverty, but equity is not the goal of the ESA. This bill will benefit middle class and upper middle class constituencies….That’s going to be the majority of people who use the ESA program. They’ll come from our limited middle class or upper middle class who are dissatisfied with the school district or with charters for one reason or another.

I am not ready to nominate Rau to the honor roll yet, as I save that honor for champions of public education, but I happily name him the “Wisest Wonk” of the reform movement for his willingness to tell the truth about the poor performance of charters and to admit that the ESA (vouchers) won’t help the majority of poor kids. If other reformers owned up to basic facts as Rau does, we would have a different conversation about education in this country.

David Berliner, distinguished educational researcher, has assembled the facts about the powerful influence of poverty and inequality on students. Until now, the linked article has been behind a paywall. It is now available to all.


Here is the background for the article:


This paper arises out of frustration with the results of school reforms carried out over the past few decades. These efforts have failed. They need to be abandoned. In their place must come recognition that income inequality causes many social problems, including problems associated with education. Sadly, compared to all other wealthy nations, the USA has the largest income gap between its wealthy and its poor citizens. Correlates associated with the size of the income gap in various nations are well described in Wilkinson & Pickett (2010), whose work is cited throughout this article. They make it clear that the bigger the income gap in a nation or a state, the greater the social problems a nation or a state will encounter. Thus it is argued that the design of better economic and social policies can do more to improve our schools than continued work on educational policy independent of such concerns.


He writes:


What does it take to get politicians and the general public to abandon misleading ideas, such as, “Anyone who tries can pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” or that “Teachers are the most important factor in determining the achievement of our youth”? Many ordinary citizens and politicians believe these statements to be true, even though life and research informs us that such statements are usually not true.


Certainly people do pull themselves up by their bootstraps and teachers really do turn around the lives of some of their students, but these are more often exceptions, and not usually the rule. Similarly, while there are many overweight, hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking senior citizens, no one seriously uses these exceptions to the rule to suggest that it is perfectly all right to eat, drink, and smoke as much as one wants. Public policies about eating, drinking, and smoking are made on the basis of the general case, not the exceptions to those cases. This is not so in education.


For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule. Presidents and politicians of both parties are quick to point out the wonderful but occasional story of a child’s rise from poverty to success and riches. They also often proudly recite the heroic, remarkable, but occasional impact of a teacher or a school on a child. These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives about our land and people, celebrated in the press, on television, and in the movies. But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American. These stories of success reflect real events, and thus they are certainly worth studying and celebrating so we might learn more about how they occur (cf. Casanova, 2010). But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.


America’s dirty little secret is that a large majority of poor kids attending schools that serve the poor are not going to have successful lives. Reality is not nearly as comforting as myth. Reality does not make us feel good. But the facts are clear. Most children born into the lower social classes will not make it out of that class, even when exposed to heroic educators. A simple statistic illustrates this point: In an age where college degrees are important for determining success in life, only 9% of low-income children will obtain those degrees (Bailey & Dynarski, 2011). And that discouraging figure is based on data from before the recent recession that has hurt family income and resulted in large increases in college tuition. Thus, the current rate of college completion by low-income students is probably lower than suggested by those data. Powerful social forces exist to constrain the lives led by the poor, and our nation pays an enormous price for not trying harder to ameliorate these conditions.


Because of our tendency to expect individuals to overcome their own handicaps, and teachers to save the poor from stressful lives, we design social policies that are sure to fail since they are not based on reality. Our patently false ideas about the origins of success have become drivers of national educational policies. This ensures that our nation spends time and money on improvement programs that do not work consistently enough for most children and their families, while simultaneously wasting the good will of the public (Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). In the current policy environment we often end up alienating the youth and families we most want to help, while simultaneously burdening teachers with demands for success that are beyond their capabilities.


Berliner then proceeds to eviscerate the assumptions and theories that undergird the failed policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Most politicians share these failed ideas and support these failed policies. Berliner brings research and knowledge to the issue and shows that there is no debate. On one hand is reality, based in research and experience; on the other is ideology backed by money and power.


The conclusion: The so-called “reformers” are hurting children. They are undermining American public education. They are ruining education. They should inform themselves and work to eliminate the sources of inequality and poverty and poor academic performance.



Paul Thomas, professor at Furman University, taught in South Carolina for 18 years. He is an eloquent and informed critic of social and education policy.


In this post, he poses five questions that every Presidential candidate should be asked (again and again).


I paraphrase his words and questions so you will read his post. They boil down to these principles:


Test-based accountability does not change the underlying social and economic conditions that cause disparate test results.


Test-based accountability has stripped teachers of their professional autonomy. As a result, fewer people choose teaching as a career.


Due to underlying economic inequality, children of color are more likely to be poor, to be segregated, to get fewer educational opportunities, to be suspended or expelled, and to have less opportunity to succeed in school and beyond. Tests don’t reduce income inequality or wealth inequality.


What, sir or madam, will you do to reduce these economic gaps instead of spending billions to measure them?

Paul Karrer teaches fifth grade in a high-needs school in Castroville, California. He writes for California newspapers, trying to bring a realistic perspective to education debates.

In this article, he calls out “reformers” for believing in magic and silver bullets.

He writes:

“Education reform (education deform) is doing kids, the profession, and the country short-term and long-term harm. Ed Reform Inc. “believes” in short fixes, silver bullets, the power of personal cult persuasion, mantras, and now the twin goddesses of all – technology and data.

“More than half of all children in United States now live in poverty (Washington Post/UNICEF). As someone who has taught in a financially-socially challenged district for many years I can attest to the overwhelming negative influences of poverty. They are both direct and indirect. What is now normal in many communities was not the norm too long ago. The influences are single parent families, multiple families living under one roof, incarcerated family members, under-employment, no employment, no history of employment, poor language skills, the culture of poverty, early birthing, poor neonatal care, high percentages of children with unbelievable disabilities, addictions, and GANGS, globalization, and the death of low-level jobs due to technology.

“These variables cannot be pooh-poohed. Absurd belief in words like GRIT and EVIDENCE and TESTING – currently trending by Ed Reform — simply cannot overcome the long list of negatives. But Ed Reform claims they do….

“I believe a needs formula is required in schools of poverty. We need to save those desperate kids. If a classroom has X amount of special ed kids, X amount of incarcerated relatives, scores X on reading or math, has more than X amount of people residing in one house (or room), more than X amount of kids on Section 8 housing, more than X amount of kids in Title 1 programs — it should trigger an automatic cut in class size. There should be no more than 15 kids in such a class. Free pre-school needs to be mandatory. Wrap-around social services (nurses, shrinks, dentists, COUNSELORS, librarians, parent training, parental language classes) have to kick in. And kids need the classic, realistic school philosophy of teach THE WHOLE STUDENT….

“Ed Reform’s solution is curriculum. Common Core will change it all, they declare. The curriculum is not the problem. But that is where the financial feed trough is these days. And even the biggest promoter of Common Core, Bill Gates himself, said, “It will take 10 – 15 years to see if this is successful.”

“How nice,” I say.

“And in the meantime Ed Reform gets to close public schools (Chicago, Louisiana) defraud the public with for-profit institutions (Corinthian/Heald), pay their owners huge obscene salaries, and they destroy public education with a thousand strokes.

“Funny thing about the Ed Reform group – they espouse so much in favor of big business, profits, monetizing, reducing costs. Except for their very own rock core belief in supply and demand.

“Supply and demand doesn’t pertain to teachers? Teachers apparently are supposed to work for a pittance. But if they are to be the solution, they need to be paid much better so as to attract more candidates to the field. But Ed Reform chokes there.

“Smaller class size is the beginning of a real solution. Put the money where it will do KIDS the most good.

“Oh yes, and have your kids opt out of testing — especially next year when it counts.”

Caleb Rossiter has just published a book about high-poverty schools, after teaching in the D.C. schools. The book is titled Ain’t Nobody Be Learnin’ Nothin’: The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools. He was especially upset by the rampant grade inflation that he witnessed in both public and charter schools. Jay Mathews wrote about Rossiter’s book here. Rossiter sent me a brief excerpt from his book, which I post here with his permission.



Yes, There Is an Answer for High-Poverty Public Schools



It’s the same as for our wealthier schools: a relevant curriculum, an orderly environment, and strong families


by Caleb Rossiter


If education is supposed to be the bridge to the middle class for low-income Americans, then the bridge is definitely out for children in high-poverty communities who attend segregated open-enrollment public and charter high schools. Tragically, that is nearly all the children in these communities. Very few escape to private schools, or the handful of public and charter schools that function like them by using selective admissions to keep out, or academic and discipline rules to push out, weak or disruptive students and troubled families.


In those schools most students can build the perseverance, knowledge, and study skills needed to gain and maintain the free ride that nearly all poor children need to complete college. In contrast, in the open-enrollment schools half of the students drop out and the other half are simply passed along until they graduate years behind grade level, helpless before a college curriculum.


Poor families have been the focus of a 20-year experiment of repairing the bridge to the middle class with a package of “reforms” in public and charter schools, including teaching to grade level tests regardless of students’ skill levels, insistence on a packaged college prep curriculum for all students, and most of all test-based “accountability,” in which teachers, and administrators are punished for the well-documented fact that being poor, black, or Hispanic correlates strongly on average with weaker performance in class and on standardized tests. These reforms came with the best intentions to produce better teaching and, as a result, better learning, but the experiment has failed spectacularly.


I know this not just because, when you strip away the “gaming” of the numbers that reformers use to make perpetual claims of progress, exam, SAT, graduation, and college completion statistics continue to show the same abysmal results for the poor and for blacks and Hispanics as 20 years ago. I know it also because for three and a half years recently I left university teaching to lend a hand as a math teacher in high-poverty high schools, and I failed just as spectacularly. (That “half-year” is the dead give-away. I recently resigned from a charter school because it demanded that I record passing grades for the 40 percent of my ninth-grade students who were delivered to Algebra 1 six years below grade level and then made little effort to catch up.)


But really, are we surprised? Was it logical to expect that with the poorest, most stressed families increasingly segregated into separate schools we could help them overcome the challenges of poverty just by changing teaching methods? Looking for the bridge to the middle class only in schools for children rather than also in jobs and support for their families meant that we could ignore the toxic legacy of America’s unique brew of slavery, segregation, and the passing of the cultures and opportunities of poverty and wealth to the next generation. How convenient!


* * *


Kenneth Clark was the psychologist whose research on black children’s self-image, in which most preferred a white to a black doll as a “good” playmate, underpinned the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board finding in 1954 that segregation was inherently unequal to the excluded group. In his work in Harlem in the 1960’s Clark discovered that poor African-Americans teenagers were “encumbered” by the devastation of the black family and of the black, particularly male, psyche by the violence and degradation of slavery and segregation. Clark identified the results as the “tangle of pathology of the ghetto:” a sense of inferiority, embedded discrimination and dysfunction, group and self-hatred, “defeatist attitudes,” and lower ambition. However, he also found that many children were not derailed by being encumbered.


Clark was not blaming the victim, but rather recognizing what the victim needed to recover. It has been a stunningly tough row to hoe, or chop, or pick, for African-Americans. The degradation and brutality of 250 years of slavery, a century of segregation and denial of opportunity by law, and now 50 years by practice, have created a burden of anger, confusion, poverty, and dysfunction that only the strong survive, and in which only the fortunate thrive.


Clark’s findings ring true today. Roughly half of my students exhibited the external symptoms of what has been called post-traumatic slave syndrome, and what I call currently-traumatized segregation syndrome. The causes are physical isolation and social alienation from the middle class, damage in pregnancy, shortage of intellectual stimulation in infancy, and high levels of violence, threat, and unemployment. The symptoms are stress, braggadocio, “joning” (verbally humiliating others in your cohort), responding violently to being joned, early and sustained language and academic deficits, fear of trying and failing, and looking for affirmation in gangs, crime, and early sexual activity. For the fortunate fifty percent who did not exhibit serious symptoms, there was almost always a strong adult somewhere in the family who had guided them through school, demanding solid performance and behavior.


While teaching on the poor side of town I would find myself regaling people on the richer side with tales of this wildly counter-productive “tangle of pathology.” I would always warn them not to interrupt me with “you’re kidding.” In the Peninsular War of the early 19th century the Duke of Wellington left the list of transgressions by his retreating troops to the imagination of the listener by saying only that every outrage imaginable was committed. Similarly, by listing these realities I am only providing a sample. Whatever outrage you can imagine, these students have seen it, carried it out, or been victims of it.


A partial litany: virtually no men in the homes, shootings by and of students, nearly half of boys involved in the criminal justice system, nearly half of girls pregnant, drug-running students and drug-chasing parents, violence and murder in the home and on the street, teenage prostitutes pimped out by family members, a third of the students classified special education or emotionally disturbed (four times the share for middle class schools), a 50 percent daily attendance rate, endless joning and fighting in and out of class, and worst of all a massive, active, nihilistic resistance to caring, planning, or doing homework or classwork that leaves students years behind, even as they are passed along with their grade cohort.


This last condition, externally-driven but self-imposed, is the primary constraint on poor black students, far more important than poverty itself, or having a young birth-mother, early health problems and language deficits, or an absent father. All of those can be overcome with a student’s modest effort, so the cultural resistance to that effort is the linchpin of today’s disaster.


Invariably, my stunned listeners would ask: “But what’s the answer?” I would demur, saying that we teachers couldn’t think about overall policy when we were focusing all our creative energies on helping one kid and supporting one family at a time. I did learn quickly what didn‘t work: “school reform.” The reformers claim that they can improve college prep performance to middle class levels by browbeating teachers with daily packaged lessons, firing the reluctant ones, and “teaching to the test.” This latter method was so all-consuming and so aligned with the expected test format and questions that I prefer to call it “cheating to the test.”


Reformers repeat and repeat that “we know what works” and that, in the words of the Edward Brooke charter schools in Boston, “research tells us that the number one predictor of student achievement isn’t race…or socio-economic status,” but great teaching. Such claims are often based on complex “value-added” computer models that compare students’ test scores to their “expected” scores, factoring out their own and their school’s socio-economic background and previous years’ scores. At present, though, these models are too crude to surmount the difficulties of accurate measurement and the variability of the causes of student performance.


The reformers’ cheerleaders among politicians and newspaper editors tell us every year that they have “done wonders” because “test scores are up.” But repetition doesn’t make any of it true. In fact, they don’t know “what works,” because after nearly 20 years of school reform no non-selective school has changed the basic trajectory of its poor children. The claims of progress invariably dissolve under examination of who is being tested in year-to-year comparisons and which comparisons are being picked and which ignored, revealing that the top predictors of average student success in America are still, and for a long time will be, the class and race.


I also knew what would help but couldn’t be used: integration, by race and class. If you have a solid majority of white, wealthier students in a school, their families create the dominant learning culture by expecting them to focus and behave in class, complete homework, and succeed. Research in cities that have maintained some integration, such as Berkeley and St. Louis, has consistently found “significant, if not dramatic” improvement for lower-income blacks who attend such schools, particularly in graduation rates, with no reduction in white scores. In addition, middle-class and wealthy families are far more active than poor parents not just in advocating for their children with teachers and administrators, but in taking part in school activities and, most importantly, demanding resources for the school from the central administration and school board and in the media. However, creating a norm of largely white, or for that matter black, middle class schools with a small share of low-income families is demographically and socially impossible in America as a whole.


America’s race and class-based residential patterns create initial school segregation in urban and suburban areas. When school districts try to promote integration, middle-class and wealthy families choose private schools, move to wealthier jurisdictions, or bring lawsuits that have recently been validated by the Supreme Court. In small towns throughout the South most white children still attend “private academies” that were set up to resist integration. Nationally, black isolation is returning to the levels from before Brown vs. Board. Over 40 percent of black and Hispanic students attend schools that are over 90 percent non-white. For the indefinite future, the front line for the education crisis for poor minority children will be in schools in which they are the overwhelming majority, and our strategy must be planned accordingly.


Now I am back in the cozy confines of university teaching, where I tell my students every day, “Thank you for doing your homework and not throwing anything at me,” and I tell my administrators, on the rare occasions I see them, “Thank you for letting me teach.” I have finally been able to find time to think through the crisis facing my previous students. And I am happy to report that yes, an answer has come clear to me. It’s simple, and its principles, though not its practice, has been proven in private schools and in public schools for wealthier families. The principles are, at heart, just common sense: schools should be built around the likely careers of the students, and families must be strengthened so they can safeguard health and develop intellect in the critical pre-natal and early infancy period.


Wealthy families already know that these are the two keys to success. They demand and receive a college preparatory curriculum because their children typically go to and complete college. Their children benefit from healthy, low-stress pregnancies and intellectually stimulating early childhoods because the families are intact and have resources. Either one parent focuses well-developed mainstream social and verbal skills on the child all day, or the family pays handsomely for an experienced care-giver while they both work at a professional level. Families in poverty need, and deserve, the same two keys.


The easier half of this proposal to implement — restructuring high-poverty schools to fit students’ needs, rather than forcing students to fit theirs — can be handled within existing school funding if federal and state school reform requirements are waived or rescinded, putting curriculum back in the hands of local boards. This would allow school districts to offer top-quality vocational and college prep programs for students who keep up and don’t act up, as well as a remediation track for those whose skill level or behavior requires temporary separation so that the other students can succeed. The harder half — hammering at the legacy of poverty and slavery by promoting employment and setting up programs that help poor families provide a strong base for their infants — could cost as little as $120 billion per year. We would probably get that investment back in spades in a decade through increased economic growth and taxes and reduced poverty payments and criminal justice expenses.


* * *


Schools: Appropriate Goals, Choice of Vocational or College Prep, Separation by Behavior


There are three things that must happen for high-poverty schools to prepare poor students to have a productive life in the middle class. First, schools must pursue behavioral goals that keep students alive and able to thrive; second, families must be offered a choice between vocational and college prep; and third, weak effort or disruption should never result, as it often does today, in suspension or expulsion for students, but rather in temporary separation from students who are working hard, with remediation intended to allow a new start in a new class the next quarter.


Pursuing appropriate goals can rescue some students from crime, disease, and pregnancy. Vocational education can rescue more from being drop-outs. Remediation and the end of automatic promotion can give on-task students a chance to gain a credible degree and off-task students a chance to pull themselves together. Many of the most encumbered students will drop out, as they do now, but some will take the bridge to the middle class. Those failing to cross the bridge could be reduced from today’s almost 100 percent to perhaps 25 percent, and the long-held goal of transforming high-poverty neighborhoods into working class settings could take place over a few generations. Selective public and charter schools could continue to “cream” off the families with the wherewithal to apply and therefore the easiest students to teach, but they wouldn’t really be necessary. Each open-enrollment school would have become selective within itself, able to offer parents an environment within the school where effort and success, rather than lethargy and chaos, would be the norm.


Appropriate goals: I used to tell my students that it was a waste of time to work on math problems if they wouldn’t first pledge to “take no life, make no life” each night — short-hand for staying out of violent situations and using a condom. To have even a chance of getting to the middle class as an adult you first have to make it out of the teenage years alive, without a criminal record, without a baby, and healthy enough to work. This reality is one that high-poverty schools need to acknowledge by providing lessons and counseling for every child on these topics. Once that is in place, the next goal is to gain the social skills needed to hold a middle class job: be ethical, cooperative, reliable, creative, perseverant, and confident in mainstream settings. Again, that is a huge challenge in a high-poverty neighborhood, and it must be met in a structured manner as in any course, with curriculum and assessment.


Next comes the ability to read, interpret, write, calculate, and strategize as needed for an entry-level job. Currently, most poor students are dazed and discouraged from elementary school on up because they have not solidified these basic skills before they are buried by the required flurry of college preparatory “Common Core” objectives. Only when the basics are solid should we turn to the supposed primary goal of high school, and the only one that gets a structured curriculum today: develop the more advanced skills that are needed for a career or college.


Vocational Choice: In a sort of reverse racism and classism, reformers who are mostly rich or white have claimed that offering vocational high schools to the poor or people of color is, to quote President George W. Bush, evidence of a ”bigotry of low expectations.” But only about 80 percent of all Americans graduate from high school, and then only about 60 percent start and 35 percent complete a college degree. When 65 percent of your clientele end up not needing your service, you’d better rethink your approach. For poor children all the percentages are far lower. Combining in high school classes with a college prep curriculum poor students who could succeed in college and poor students who cannot or who want to move more quickly into a blue collar career means that hardly anybody can succeed at either.


Parents deserve an honest appraisal of their child’s skills and interests, so they know exactly how their children compare academically with college-bound peers. Then they deserve a choice between college and vocational prep. It should first be offered after elementary school, because today’s middle school curriculum already looks like college prep, which will turn many students off to any schooling. The choice should be offered again after middle school for families who want to go in a new direction.


A minimum wage job pays about $18,000 a year. That is all that drop-outs or fraudulent graduates of a watered-down college prep curriculum can obtain. Careers that will easily pay twice as much for the indefinite future include plumbing, carpentry, electrician, cosmetology, hotel and restaurant management, fire-fighting, police work, computer technician, audio tech, web and social media design, computer programming, heating and air conditioning, medical records and technology, and bricklaying. In rural America there are many programs in which kids go to a home school and take practical, rather than college prep, academic courses half of the day and then go to a trade school the other half. Practical academics means checkbook math, not number theory; percentages, not calculus; angles for construction, not for Euclidean proofs; the physics of plumbing, not molecular motion; and analysis of newspaper articles, not Shakespeare’s plays. Success, not stigma, is associated with these programs. In urban areas, though, they have fallen into disarray.


There are a large number of mildly-challenged special education students in high-poverty schools. Our legal framework places far too many of them into mainstream classes that are simply overwhelming, but parents rightly resist the alternative of isolated classes and a dead-end special education diploma. Vocational training would often be a viable alternative for helping these most vulnerable young people prepare for a middle class career.


The vocational option would have to be exempted from the school reform curriculum and punitive testing because Common Core standards and improvement rubrics are illogical for it. For the college prep option, school reform may, unfortunately, hold sway for a while, but it does far less damage to administrators, teachers, and students when the students can largely handle the work.


Discipline and Remediation: Whichever program a family chooses, student effort and behavior will determine success far more than the quality of teachers and curriculum. College prep or vocational, schools must build their rules around a recognition that the culture of poverty so well identified by Kenneth Clark in the 1960’s is alive and not well today. To neutralize the culture of poverty we need to have two tracks in every course, from French to gym, from refrigeration to cosmetology, in high-poverty open-enrollment schools: the regular class for kids who are trying and succeeding, and a separate remediation section for the rest of the quarter, at most ten weeks, for those who have disrupted class or earned a failing grade for the quarter.


All students would start the course together in the fall, but in contrast to today educators should quickly remove students from class for disruption or earning a failing grade, so that all students can get the help they deserve. The high share of students, up to a third, who are now under disciplinary measures, including suspension, on any given day in high-poverty schools would indicate that these two tracks could be almost equal in size for the first few years.


Being removed from a course for disruption or failure to work enough to keep up would knock students out of their graduation cohort. After completing the quarter in remediation, they would be a quarter behind, and have to start that quarter’s material the next time it is offered with a new group of students. Remediation could include basic academic methods and skills, but would largely consist of students and families working with counselors and administrators to identify and address the students’ behavioral barriers to success in school.


The largest subgroup of poor Americans is white. However, the greatest barriers to school success are found in poor black communities. The kids themselves acknowledge the reality of the culture of black poverty, saying, “I can’t help myself. Sometimes I just be so ghetto.” In the television drama “The Wire” teachers classify middle school students as “stoop kids” or “corner kids,” based on what they did when their parents left them alone in elementary school and told them to stay on the stoop of the house. Those who stay on the stoop as ordered typically have parents who, while poor and stressed, have the strength and perseverance to rise above their deluge of problems and maintain control of their children. Those who ignore the command to stay on the stoop, and just head on down to the corner, rarely have an adult in their life who can control their behavior at home, on the block, or in school.


Stoop kids can respond, and actually want to respond, to structure and academic challenge. When they are taught as a group, without distractions from the corner kids, they can thrive in college preparatory or vocational classes. With strong funding and follow-up in college or post-secondary vocational training, they can be successful. They will make up the bulk of the regular class track. Corner kids actively resist taking direction from parents or teachers, and they melt down in dramatic misbehavior when pushed. They do little work and quickly fall behind in early grades, and only get to high school by being falsely promoted for years. They will make up the bulk of the remediation track, but after each quarter will get a chance to being again, with a new cohort.


Today the stoop and corner kids are mixed in every class and setting. The corner kids’ personal dramas and low skill levels deprive the stoop kids who are ready to learn of the chance to do so. We owe it to both groups to separate them so that stoop kids can succeed and the corner kids can address whatever is keeping them from trying.


On the surface it seems like this would amount to cold-hearted triage of those who can’t handle school, be it college prep or vocational. But that is misleading: we are already losing not just the corner kids, but the stoop kids as well. Establishing clear rules for attendance in courses for credit would permit the stoop kids to learn and put the corner kids exactly where they need to be: in a separate setting within the school that is devoted to finding their deficits, be they behavioral, psychological, family, or academic, and providing support so that in the next quarter they can try again. Far from cold-hearted, this recognition of their reality would be a warm-hearted landing for them.


As one of my funniest students used to say when he used a new math method, “Boom, there you go.” Simply by setting rules for class attendance we have freed at least half of our kids to succeed and given the other half a clear path back to success. Good teachers will stay in such an environment, and even if we can’t end the school reform paradigm right away, it is far easier to teach and learn in the absence of chaos.


* * *


Strengthening the Family: Jobs, and Prenatal and Infancy Support


As social worker turned congressman Ron Dellums once told me, the motto of his former profession was, “you have to take people where they are, not where you want them to be.” So, where are our poor children? Where their families are. There is no solution to the educational disaster for high-poverty kids without reducing their families’ challenges. And the families are weak, largely father-absent, alienated, and under crushing medical, psychological, and economic stress.


In the case of poor black families, there is an additional challenge from our long history of racism and discrimination. A reduction in overt racism since the 1960’s cannot magically wash away that history. This is an international phenomenon of violent race rule, in which some share of the oppressed are extremely affected. At about the same time Kenneth Clark was writing about America’s “dark ghetto,” psychiatrist and revolutionary Franz Fanon concluded that the source, or at least the compounding agent, of the mental illnesses he treated in his Algerian patients in the 1950’s was colonialism by race, the daily drip and sometimes deluge of segregation and structural abasement that some transformed into self-doubt and self-hatred.


Assistant Secretary of Labor (later Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan completed a study in 1965 called “The Negro Family: the Case for National Action.” In a memo to President Johnson on his study he called for the government to confront the history of “unimaginable mistreatment” of blacks and the “racist virus” that continues to live in white America’s bloodstream, and to make a national commitment to move the segregated, dysfunctional, black lower class into a successful and largely integrated middle class.


Moynihan borrowed much of his logic and language from Clark’s studies of Harlem youth. He identified the “crumbling” of the “Negro family structure” under a “tangle of pathology” as “the master problem,” and called strengthening this structure “the work of a half-century.” After just half of that period Moynihan looked back in despair at the lack of funding and commitment, and the resulting lack of progress for the lower, as opposed to the middle, Africa-American economic class. Now the full term has passed, and the poor black family is even more distressed. If we falter again we will be having this same conversation in another half- century.


Attacking poverty is a humbling task, like educating children. There is no silver bullet, many unique structural and historical barriers must be addressed, and any approach that works at one time and place may be inappropriate for another. Consider the efforts Western countries, the World Bank, and private organizations have made to “save Africa” by “ending poverty” since the days of colonialism. Despite a trillion of dollars of their cash, goods, and services, most Africans have not escaped grinding poverty, nor joined the rest of the world’s path to longer life expectancy. The World Bank cannot address some root causes because it is actually run by the world’s wealthiest countries, and they keep Africa from sharing in the wealth of refining and manufacturing by paying off dictators for exporting raw materials. Poor governance, corruption, civil war, lack of investment, and myriad other explanations are offered, but at its core the historical seizure of Africa’s political and economic power by brutal colonialism has not been reversed.


Experts debate whether international anti-poverty efforts should focus on delivering economic growth that allows a country to improve living conditions through employment and income so people can afford clean water and modern medicine, or on simply delivering water and medicine right away. The answer is both, of course. China has seen a tremendous reduction in poverty and a similar increase in life expectancy through rapid, capitalistic economic growth. Socialist Cuba reduced the worst effects of poverty with direct services, heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union. The same lesson holds true for the United States: both income and direct support are needed to break the grip of poverty.


Our poverty rate remains high, upwards of 20 percent, despite significant spending to lower it. In addition to a proliferation of efforts by private foundations and individuals, there is no doubt that taxpayers are paying their share. A credible compilation by the libertarian Cato Institute identifies a trillion dollars of annual spending by all levels of government, 75 percent at the federal level, on programs specifically targeted to help the poor. That amounts to $20,000 for every person in poverty, raising for Cato and others the obvious alternative that perhaps those funds should be turned into cash transfers in the same amount, rather than be spent on programs.


This concept has surfaced repeatedly, on all sides of our political divide. It hearkens back to one of Moynihan’s proposals, which was endorsed by both President Nixon and his challenger George McGovern in the 1972 election but never implemented, of a guaranteed annual income to help people rise out of poverty. Liberal economist James Tobin, conservative economist Milton Friedman, and anti-poverty crusader Michael Harrington all endorsed such schemes.


These cash proposals seem to founder on the American public’s moral problem with solving poverty directly by making the poor rich, with cash. It seems to offend our sense that the “deserving” poor should be helped, but not the dissolute poor. This sense found expression in the 1996 Republican Congress and its “welfare reform” bill that imposed minimum wage work requirements and cut-offs of cash to those who were unable to find or hold these jobs. The bill also ordered poor women to get married before having babies, and reinforced the order with various cash penalties and incentives.


Unlike King Canute of legend, who ordered the tide not to come in to make a point about the limited power of government over natural phenomena, the Republican leadership actually seemed to believe that their demand that the poor work and get married would succeed. All it succeeded in doing was dramatically reducing the cash provided to the most challenged poor families. President Clinton “triangulated” politically and signed the bill, which led to the resignation of his top anti-poverty aides over the counter-productive nature of these moralistic restrictions.


Political problems aside, how credible is the concept of converting today’s poverty funding to cash transfers? Well, half of all poverty spending is for Medicaid, one of Lyndon Johnson’s babies that has been, literally, a life-saver for generations of Americans. Health insurance would be just about as expensive for individuals to buy themselves, so as long as we want poor people to have access to medical care, there really is only $10,000 per person to consider as a cash grant. Many of the remaining programs are already cash-like, like the largest five other federal programs: Food Stamps, at $75 billion, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, which each return about $60 billion to minimum wage workers, Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and disabled, at $50 billion, and Welfare (now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), at $30 billion. Smaller non-cash programs help poor students go to college, aid schools based on the number of poor children, subsidize housing support, provide job training, and care for the homeless. It is not clear that providing these targeted programs as cash would reduce poverty, once the initial sum was spent.


So if not a guaranteed income, what should be done? What is missing in all the spending programs is simply Moynihan’s national commitment to do whatever it takes to disrupt the transmission of poverty, such as assuring living wage jobs for parents and promoting health and intellectual stimulation in the crucial pre-natal and infancy period.


Jobs: Like the Cato Institute, Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan in his March 2014 budget proposal continues to make the mistake the Republican leadership made in 1996, confusing correlation with causation. They all argue that if poor people stayed in school, did not have babies until they were married, and took any job and kept it, they would rise out of poverty. Yes, middle-class people have far higher graduation, marriage, and employment rates than poor people, but that is as much an effect as a cause of their income. The sort of meaningless high school degree handed out in a high-poverty school gets you at best a minimum wage job, which pays well below the poverty line. A good-paying job, along the lines of $15 an hour, or about $30,000 a year, is the surest way to strengthen a family.


Most developed countries consider it a recession, requiring direct government employment or government subsidies for private employment, when official unemployment reaches about seven percent. During America’s depression, unemployment soared to 25 percent, and President Roosevelt responded with a bevy of employment and assistance programs. Well, for the past 50 years black America as a whole has always had an unemployment rate in the mid-teens, so it is always in a severe recession. The black rate is always twice that of whites, across all levels of education, and the Hispanic rate is only a quarter of the way from the white to the black rate, which looks a lot like blacks are being discriminated against, consciously or unconsciously, by white employers and managers. Black high-poverty areas in cities often top 25 percent unemployment officially, which is a depression in itself, but so many people are not searching for jobs that this often translates to well over 50 percent. Where are the crash jobs programs for these recessions and depressions?


There are 15 million students in public high schools, about half of whom are low-income, so there are 15 million mothers and fathers of poor high school students. The federal government should offer $30,000 public sector or subsidized private-sector jobs to any unemployed or poorly employed parents who want them. Local governments and non-profit organizations have experimented widely with this sort of employment program, and have stockpiled lots of plans, particularly in infrastructure repair and maintenance using basic skills. Even if some jobs were make-work rather than directly addressing needs in the community, they would be delivering a benefit by strengthening at-risk families. Some families may be able to move to a middle-class black or integrated area, which is the hidden, unspoken goal of poverty programs anyway.


Perhaps three million parents might both want these jobs and then be able to hold them by showing up and performing well. Eligibility would depend on them bringing their child in to school on time each day, before going off to their assignment, and on staying up to date on child support payments if, as is usually the case, the parents are not both living with the child. The cost of the program would be 3 million times $30,000, or $90 billion, including $10 billion for administration. The income should be uncounted for taxes and social services, so as not to reduce existing assistance, such as Medicaid, food stamps, or welfare.


Whether it is direct services or jobs, we must acknowledge that some families are too distressed to benefit. The program need not be distorted to chase them down or give them multiple chances. It should focus on those who can benefit. In the 1970’s I worked in a desperately poor country in upstate New York for the Appalachian Regional Commission and its Home Start program. I recall a meeting of all the government-funded social agencies trying to help a legendary, extended rural family, which squatted on abandoned land, living in burned-out school buses. The men hauled junked cars for cash, the women scavenged for surplus food from public and private sources, and the children were malnourished, hampered by escalating medical problems, and lost in school before they even showed up.


The family members were trapped by violence, illness, poverty, and chaos, before even considering the psychological damage of being the poorest, unhealthiest people in the county. When I went to the meeting room in a shiny new county social service building I could barely get in the door: health clinic staff, social workers, psychologists, special education teachers, food stamp administrators, anti-poverty organizers, probation officers, heating specialists, cooperative extension agents, job training managers…it seemed like virtually everybody on the federal, state, county, and town payrolls except maybe the grave digger was there. All of us, this phalanx of two dozen helpers, had extensive and useless experience with the family. I remember thinking that if one-tenth of our salaries went to the family, just for one month, they all could move to a mansion in Malibu. We should accept the fact that some families cannot be helped, and focus on the large number that can be.


Neo-natal and Infancy Support: As America expands pre-school programs for poor three and four year-olds, it needs also to be focusing on the far more crucial developmental period between a child’s conception and first birthday. I worked as an analyst with Cornell University’s Longitudinal Early Childhood Consortium Study, which studied pre-kindergarten programs that featured high teaching hours, highly paid professional teachers and intense verbal stimulation, and heavy interaction with and support for families through home visits. Such programs (which should not be confused with typical Head Starts) can have surprisingly solid, but not dramatic, benefits on such long-term behavioral variables as high school graduation, employment, and prison rates, and age at first child. However, their impact on cognitive variables like test scores recedes quickly. This is because brain development and learning style are set much earlier than three years old. In fact, from conception, the longer you wait to intervene in poor children’s development and families’ interaction styles, the less intellectual benefit you get.


In my Home Start program in Appalachia in the1970’s I visited the same 15 pre-kindergarten children each week in their homes for an hour and a half. I was 21 years old with a child development degree, and my job was to encourage poor parents to talk, play, and read with their children in ways that would stimulate their cognitive growth and prepare them for kindergarten. As condescending as that sounds, it was a great model, and it was guided by rigorous research. A consistent finding, then and now, about social class and cognitive development is that poor children, on average, have millions (by one study, 32 million) less words, questions, and demands for responses directed to them by their parents in the first few years of life than middle class children. This gap, which I sensed literally the second I walked into the eerily quiet Appalachian homes, creates significant developmental and social lags that more than explain the so-called “achievement gap” between poor and middle class children. Because black families are poor at three times the rate of white families, the racial achievement gap is also exacerbated by poverty. In addition, the word gap is also extreme between black and white parents, controlling for income.


A helper should be sent out to every single expecting low-income father and mother for up to two hours twice a week, from the middle of pregnancy to the middle of the first year of life to collaborate, to teach by example how to interact to increase stimulation, to make suggestions about healthy living, and simply to help navigate the burden of being a parent of limited means. The good news is that pilot programs are already underway in a variety of guises, backed by public donations and about a half a billion dollars of federal funding for local efforts under the much-maligned Affordable Care Act. They have a variety of names, such as Parent to Parent, Nurse Family Partnership, Early Head Start, Parents Helping Parents, and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, some use professional staff and some use volunteers, and some are focused on children with disabilities rather than poor families. They all, though, can all be collapsed under one rubric: Voluntary Home Visiting Family Support Programs.


The purpose of home visiting programs is to help parents become more effective at child development, from pregnancy through the first birthday. Given the rigors of poverty and race, even an excellent program with wide coverage will be no panacea. Poverty and the lack of resources and support it implies is strongly correlated with infant mortality. Black women, partly because of their disproportionate poverty, have twice the rate of white women. But consider this strange finding by the Centers for Disease Control: college-educated, well-paid, married black women have twice the infant mortality of their white peers. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies calls this the stress effect of being black in America. The constant pressure of being black in, for middle class women, the mainstream white culture and the constant worry about how your children will be treated combine to stress your body during pregnancy, resulting in increased prematurity and resulting low birth weight. No amount of home visiting will remove the stress effect of being black, but it should certainly help in the long-term for individual children.


Most parents, especially young parents, would agree to take part in the program, and would, in my experience, come to look forward to the visits and be eager to mimic the activities with their children they are shown by the visitor. However, some of the most needy may choose not to take part, out of fear of getting any agency close to their business. This is similar to the resistance by poor high school students to telling anybody anything about one’s family, because that might lead to investigation and trouble. This is a good point to note in closing this article. We are working with individuals, each different and each with their own set of strengths and stresses. A little humility about our limitations and theirs, a little attention to what real people are telling us about their lives, would go a long way in the high-stakes debate over educating the children of poverty.


* * *


In one of his eloquent essays, Paul Thomas puts standardized tests into perspective: They cannot be tools for equity. They were designed to sort and rank, and they are biased towards those who start with the most advantages.


He writes:


High-stakes, standardized tests are, as Audre Lorde stresses, “the master’s tools.”


For those of us seeking educational and social equity and justice, then, we must heed Lorde’s call:


For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change….

The essential flaw with continuing to cling to high-stakes standardized testing is two-fold: (1) the tests are race, class, and gender biased, and (2) the demand that we raise test scores keeps all the attention on outcomes (and not the policies and practices that create the inequity).


Read it all. It is thoughtful and important.

Emma Brown reports in the Washington Post about the outrageous inequity in funding American public schools. Corporate reformers have offered charters, vouchers, and high-stakes testing as “solutions” to poverty and inequity, but they are wrong. They are actually distracting attention from what matters most: Do schools have the resources to meet the needs of the children they enroll? The answer is no.


Brown writes:


Funding for public education in most states is inadequate and inequitable, creating a huge obstacle for the nation’s growing number of poor children as they try to overcome their circumstances, according to a set of reports released Monday by civil rights groups.


Students in the nation’s highest-spending state (New York) receive about $12,000 more each year than students in the lowest-spending state (Idaho), according to the reports, and in most states school districts in wealthy areas spend as much or more per pupil than districts with high concentrations of poverty.


In addition, many states were spending less on education in 2012 than they were in 2008, relative to their overall economic productivity, according to the reports.



A recent OECD report said that the U.S. was one of three nations that spends more on rich children than on poor children.


Charters, vouchers, and high-stakes testing do not reduce income inequality, nor do they reduce poverty, nor do they compensate for inequitable funding.


That is the civil rights issue of our time.



Three activists for racial and social justice take issue with the position of several civil rights organizations that opposed opting out of mandated tests. Pedro Noguera of New York University, John Jackson of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project support the right of parents to opt their children out of state tests.

The NCLB annual tests have not advanced the interests of poor children or children of color, they say.

“Schools serving poor children and children of color remain under-funded and have been labeled “failing” while little has been done at the local, state or federal level to effectively intervene and provide support. In the face of clear evidence that children of color are more likely to be subjected to over-testing and a narrowing of curriculum in the name of test preparation, it is perplexing that D.C. based civil rights groups are promoting annual tests….:

“We are not opposed to assessment. Standards and assessments are important for diagnostic purposes. However, too often the data produced by standardized tests are not made available to teachers until after the school year is over, making it impossible to use the information to address student needs. When tests are used in this way, they do little more than measure predictable inequities in academic outcomes. Parents have a right to know that there is concrete evidence that their children are learning, but standardized tests do not provide this evidence….

We now know students cannot be tested out of poverty, and while NCLB did take us a step forward by requiring schools to produce evidence that students were learning, it took us several steps backward when that evidence was reduced to how well a student performed on a standardized test…..

The civil rights movement has always worked to change unjust policies. When 16-year-old Barbara Johns organized a student strike in Prince Edward County, Virginia in 1951 leading to Brown v. Board in 1954, she opted out of public school segregation. When Rosa Parks sat down on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 she opted out of the system of segregation in public transportation. And as youth and their allies protest throughout the country against police brutality, declaring that “Black Lives Matter,” we are reminded that the struggle for justice often forces us to challenge the status quo, even when those fighting to maintain it happen to be elected officials or, in this case, members of the civil rights establishment.


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