Not so long ago, “reformers” belittled anyone who called attention to poverty and said they were making excuses for bad teachers. All children could reach the highest heights on academic measures, they insisted, if they all had great teachers. We still don’t have an existence proof of the reformers’ assertions, but the good news is that even reformers are beginning to acknowledge that poverty gets in the way of learning as well as harming children’s life prospects. It is true that we have not heard that admission by Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee or Bill Gates or Wendy Kopp, but the time when they made proclamations about the unimportance of poverty seems to have past.

 

In this article, Helen Ladd, Pedro Noguera, Paul Reville, and Joshua Starr make the case for the renewed attention to the effects of poverty on children. The strategy of denying the effects of poverty has failed, they write:

 

 

It is clearer every day that their strategy hasn’t worked. Gaps in achievement have persisted and even grown. For example, stagnation or declines in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, among English-language learners and racial and ethnic minority students have highlighted growing deficits for those students relative to their more advantaged peers. And as Detroit, Newark, N.J., and other high-poverty urban districts that emphasized the use of student test scores to make key decisions show, poverty and structural racism stand in the way of substantially improving academic and social outcomes and limit the success of attempts to improve teaching. The good news is that when poor children have the same opportunities as their better-off peers—high-quality prekindergarten, enriching after-school activities, reliable health care, and nutritious meals—their teachers can teach more effectively, and they can achieve at higher levels.

 
Our increasing national understanding of the importance of such opportunities has led to a shift toward better education policy. High-quality prekindergarten is a top priority for the Obama administration, and cities from Boston to New York to San Antonio are demonstrating how to make it happen. New York City increased the number of children served in quality, full-day pre-K programs from 13,000 to over 70,000 in just two years. With growing numbers of students coming to class hungry, the community-eligibility provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has helped high-poverty schools not only make lunch available to all students in high-poverty schools, but also serve them breakfast and even dinner. And in teacher-powered schools, those closest to the classroom—teachers, parents, and students themselves, who were sidelined just a few years ago—are taking on a more central role in shaping school policy.

 
“[We must] ground school improvement efforts in community input so that key voices are heard, valuable assets are leveraged, and critical needs are met.”
The challenge we now face is to transform these examples into a cohesive response to the widespread injustice and poverty that continue to hold schools and students back. Racial inequities—such as hugely disparate rates of expulsion between black and white students and the lack of college-preparatory coursework in high schools serving students of color—are endemic. And for the first time since the federal government began subsidizing school meals, over half of all U.S. public school students now qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
We need a refreshed policy agenda that builds on this momentum to broadly define public education as a public good that directly mitigates poverty’s impacts and prepares all students for college, careers, and civic engagement by supporting learning from birth year-round.

 

The only way to make education the “civil rights issue of our time,” as Arne Duncan used to say, is to develop a sustained attack on poverty.