Mike Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute just posted his first blog exchange with Deborah Meier. Mike argues that the key to closing the opportunity gap between rich and poor children is to close the vocabulary gap. He cites the work of E.D. Hirsch to support his contention.

In his article, he refers to me as one of the people who say that nothing can be done until we fix poverty. To be sure I don’t misquote him, as he misquotes me, here is the relevant paragraph:

“Still, the message that comes through in Professors Reardon’s and Carter’s work—and from others on the left, including Diane Ravitch and Richard Rothstein—is that there’s not much schools can do about these gaps. They are visible before kids even enter kindergarten; they don’t grow much, if at all, while children are in the K-12 system; and they are fundamentally related to our country’s economic and political system. We’ll never make much progress until we get serious about redistributing income, or reviving labor unions, or raising the minimum wage, etc.”

Actually, I have never said that. I do believe that the dramatic income inequality in this country burdens children, nearly a quarter of whom live in poverty. I do think it is a national scandal that our nation has a higher proportion of children in poverty (about 23%) than any other advanced nation.

But I have never said that schools can do nothing to improve the education of poor children until we redistribute income or raise the minimum wage, etc. I have said and written on many occasions that we must improve schools and improve the lives of children at the same time.

There are many things that schools can do to help poor kids succeed in school. Start with reducing class size. If we were serious about helping poor kids, they would be in classes no larger than 12-15, just like the classes at Exeter and Deerfield Academy and Spence. Why do the richest kids get what the poorest kids need, while the neediest kids get stuffed into classes of 35-40 and do not get the individual attention they need? Would Petrilli agree?

Poor kids need schools that have a rich program in the arts and physical education, as well as other essential subjects, like foreign languages, history, and the sciences. They need beautiful facilities and playing fields, laboratories and libraries. Instead, they are invariably crammed into worn buildings that have few of those facilities, buildings that rich parents would never permit their children to attend.

Poor kids need teachers who have excellent and deep preparation to teach, with the training to help children with disabilities and English language learners. Instead they get the newest teachers, who have little or no preparation for the work they are expected to do. This cheats poor kids.

To suggest that poverty doesn’t matter is simply wishful thinking. Poor children miss more days of school because they are likelier than their advantaged peers to get sick, and likelier not to get the medical care they need. They are less likely to see a dentist or have their vision tested. They are subject to many burdens imposed by poverty, and those burdens affect their school performance. Being sick and hungry interferes with one’s school work. Being homeless interferes with one’s school work.

Yes, schools matter a lot. They can change lives. Yes, teachers make a difference. They change the lives of children every day.

But poverty matters too. Anyone who is serious about changing the lives of children in this nation will insist that poor kids have equality of educational opportunity. Not harsh discipline; not threats and punishments tied to test scores. Not a Race to the Top.

Just equality of educational opportunity.

That is a good starting point.