Arthur Camins, who writes brilliantly about education, left a comment about a post he wrote a few years ago. It is as timely now as it was then.

Arthur is the Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) at the Stevens Institute of Technology where he leads the Center’s curriculum, professional development and research work.

Camins explains why schools could not cure poverty. Sure, some students will doggedly persevere and elevate themselves out of the bottom of the income distribution.

But most students will remain poor and hopeless.

Camins writes:

“Not long ago, an otherwise healthy friend of mine almost died when a localized, microbial infection advanced into full-blown blood poisoning, or sepsis, which is characterized by multiple-organ dysfunction. Only a last-minute intervention saved his life.

“Hospitals treat blood infections with powerful antibiotics, coupled with a multitude of strategies to maintain organ function. They recognize that supporting the essential organs is a critical care necessity, even as they work to resolve the underlying infection.

“Medical professionals understand that a successful treatment plan must address both proximal and distal issues, and that systemic illness must be treated systemically. Indeed, such an approach is now standard operating procedure.

“In stark contrast, the current narrative of education reform says that by focusing on the apparent symptoms (e.g. low test scores and too few students prepared for college and career) and treating single organs, such as teacher evaluation and compensation systems, we can cure the causal infection (poverty). In the early 1990s, there was surge of interest in systemic change in education; however, those efforts were short lived in the face of complex problems and mounting impatience for a quick fix.

“Attempts at systemic change gave way to market-driven competitive solutions and a singular focus on measuring outcomes. We abandoned systemic change for symptomatic change.

“To stretch the metaphor a bit, I would argue that the issues that often plague high-poverty schools — such as an overabundance of inexperienced teachers, low expectations among staff and even among families, insufficient challenge and rigor, inequitable distribution of facilities and resources, and inadequate evaluation processes — are akin to the organs. Their prolonged ill health may exacerbate the disease, but they do not cause it.
As with sepsis, we cannot ignore the organs and simply treat the symptoms of poverty’s infection. As with strengthening human organs damaged by microbial driven infection, we need to build up educational systems so that schools and their students are less vulnerable to the effects of poverty. We can give students a fighting chance.”

He then goes on to identify four school-based reforms that would make a difference.

But he knows those changes are not enough to have a significant impact on reducing poverty.

“The more successful school systems to which the United States are most frequently compared have less skewed income distributions and greater supports for students and their families — a more systemic approach. Our most important investment would be in creating well-paying jobs so that families have stability. In addition, the security of universally available health care, pre-school, after-school and summer programs would bring to poor students, what is a natural part of the lives of their wealthier, and typically more successful, peers. The systemic success of these supports depends not just upon their individual quality, but rather upon their purposeful coherent implementation though community-wide collective action. Finally, we need to abandon the delusion of the last several decades that separate but equal schools are possible at scale. Instead we need to actively promote and incentivize schools that are racially and economically integrated.

“Let’s not forget to use the strongest medicine to fight the real infection, poverty. Let’s not imagine that by getting more accurate measures of educational organ failure, or by propping up one or another organ that we can cure the disease. As a nation we need to do more than that. I think we know what to do, but so far, we never have. In place of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” we now seem to have a war on schools and teachers in the name of ending poverty. We can’t save the patient without attacking the infection. It’s time.”

– See more at: http://www.arthurcamins.com/?p=90#sthash.tzc6P0o5.dpuf