A Christmas Carol For Our Schools

A new round of the popular education board game, Poverty Matters, began last week with a New York Times op-ed by Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske, titled, “Class Matters: Why Won’t We Admit It?”  (Interestingly, the essay is really about poverty, not class, and the paper that Ladd wrote on which the essay is based is titled Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence.  See also Kathleen Porter-Magee’s The `Poverty Matters’ Trap from last July’s Flypaper.)

Ladd and Fiske’s essay was one of those broadsides that spreads through the teacher ranks like a brush fire. I received my email copy from one of our district’s veteran teachers, a hard-working, dedicated woman who rarely misses an opportunity to remind me that she and her colleagues would be doing a fine job were it not for unmotivated kids and their irresponsible parents.  And Diane Ravitch weighed in,  calling to mind, in tune with the season, the story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim, offering to “update this tale for today’s school reformers” by calling attention to Ladd and Fiske’s op-ed. (Ravitch says she uses Ladd’sEducation and Poverty paper in her post.)

What I don’t understand in all of this is who exactly is claiming that class (or poverty or parents or kids) doesn’t matter?  Ladd and Fiske spend most of their essay stating the obvious: that socio-economic circumstance matters to education outcomes. The evidence that our policymakers and reformers are in denial of this salient fact?

“No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face.”


NCLB actually forced schools to pay attention to their poor and minority students by demanding disaggregated data; that looks to me like quite the note.  And plenty of schools that I have visited got the message.  But it’s not good enough for Ladd and Fiske, who argue that the law should also have helped schools “address the challenges [poor and minority students] carry with them into the classroom.”


What happened to Title I?  What happened to free-and-reduced lunch? What about the dozens of adequacy and equity lawsuits that have redistributed billions of tax dollars to low-wealth schools?  And those are just the heavily subsidized income distribution anti-poverty programs directed at schools.  Outside of schools we have Medicaid, Section 8 housing, WIC (Women, Infants and Children food program), food stamps and a plethora of anti-poverty programs that should prove, if nothing else, how misguided the cure-poverty first folks are.

As Porter-Magee wrote last July,

“Of course, the link between student achievement and socioeconomic status is unmistakable….  But saying we need to fix poverty before we can fix schools is like a doctor saying that he’s going to wait until you get better before he treats you.  Education is the path out of poverty, not the consolation prize offered to children whose families have managed to dig their way out on their own.”

The only denial here is Ladd and Fiske’s: thirty years of “war on poverty” (vis Lyndon Johnson, 1964) and stultifyingly little school improvement to show for it. Several years ago I met a low-income housing developer who told me, “I once believed that cleaning up a neighborhood by building decent housing would improve education; it didn’t.”

Ladd and Fiske’s assertions are even more bizarre given the fact that an increasing number of reformers – not to mention generations of Catholic educators, to cite the best known of the private schools that educate the poor – have proven over and over again that poverty is an educational challenge for schools not a death sentence for their students.

But Ladd and Fiske twist these successes into pretzels of logic:   “If some schools can succeed, the argument goes, then it is reasonable to expect all schools to.”  Who makes that argument?  Reasonable?  It would be reasonable to expect such proven methods to work unless, of course, you’re part of a determined status quo which believes that hundred-page teacher contracts, tenure, single-salary wage schedules, and last-in-first-out labor laws are also reasonable.

As with Ravitch’s “miracle” argument (“the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny,” she asserted in the Times last May), Ladd and Fiske build mighty big straw men.  Bam! Slam! “[C]lose scrutiny of charter school performance has shown that many of the success stories have been limited to particular grades or subjects and may be attributable to substantial outside financing or extraordinarily long working hours on the part of teachers. The evidence does not support the view that the few success stories can be scaled up to address the needs of large populations of disadvantaged students.”

And what is the point?  If it isn’t going to work for everyone, it shouldn’t be tried by anyone?  What exactly is preventing poor public schools from receiving “substantial” financing (many of them, as we know, already do) or hiring teachers who will work hard?

Speaking of the devil (that’s just a joke, friends, no demonizing intended), Randi Weingarten is bringing the American Federation of Teachers version of the anti-poverty campaign to the county where it all began — McDowell County, West Virginia, the first place in the nation to receive food stamps – in what the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton says is “an unusual effort to turn around a floundering school system… by simultaneously tackling the social and economic troubles of McDowell County.”  (Custer’s last stand comes to mind.)

Speaking from the same script as Ladd, Fiske, and Ravitch, Weingarten tells Layton, that “I’ve gotten so angry in the last couple of years when people who are new to our field decide that they alone, just by exhorting, will help ensure that geography does not become destiny for some kids….  A lot of the factors that confront kids — poverty, divorce, health care — are real obstacles. People can pretend to ignore them elsewhere, but no one can ignore those factors in McDowell.”

Pretend to ignore?

No matter how often  serious reformers repeat it – and I have heard it often the status quo ante brigades that Ravitch and Ladd and Fiske and Weingarten represent so well refuse to hear it: poverty matters, class matters, parents matter, kids matter, and, what these new establishmentarians keep denying, schools matter. No serious reformer that I know of, as Ladd and Fiske assert, “den[ies] a correlation [between poverty and educational achievement].”  In fact, it is these reformers’ very embrace of those challenges that distinguishes them from the new establishmentarians and allowed them to, yes, “beat the odds.”

And even Scrooge got the message eventually – but it wasn’t the message Ravitch thinks is key to the Christmas Carol. The biggest sin of Dickens’ famous anti-hero is his monocular view of the world, his belief that caste and class were indeed so deeply imbedded in a person’s character that charity did not matter. Scrooge was the original determinist cumfatalist: since class matters there’s no point in reaching out. Not until he was visited by the ghosts of determinists past did he see the light:  Tiny Tim was redeemable! And in that redemption Scrooge himself would be saved. The lesson here, I’m afraid, is that schools, like Scrooge, can make a difference in children’s lives. And it is my Christmas hope that teachers and policymakers will be freed from their chains and see how much they can do to improve schools and the educational opportunities of our most needy children.

—Peter Meyer

This post also appeared on Flypaper.

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