For Labor Day: School Should Be a Child’s First Job

I’ve seen poverty in many places around the world, on several different continents, which is why the debate about American education and poverty has always struck me as a little silly.  I mean, how is it possible to throw so much money at our schools and get so little education?

You only have to read James Tooley’s book, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, to understand. (I was pleased to see it on Ed Next’s list (or here) of top education books of the decade.)

American poverty is different – and the debate about poverty’s impact on education is close to ridiculous in large part because our poverty is as much intellectual as it is economic, especially when it comes to education.

But I was looking forward to reading Pedro Noguera’s New York Daily News essay from a few days ago, in part because Whitney Tilson said he “mostly” agreed with it.

I read it and mostly disagree. You don’t have to know much about education to see the flaws in the veteran educator’s arguments.  At the outset, his description of the two sides (always beware someone says there are two sides to an argument) in the “ongoing debate…about how to teach poor children” is a set-up. He characterizes one side (his) as arguing that

[W]e must address the wide variety of social issues (like poor health and nutrition, mobility, inadequate preparation for school, etc.) that tend to be associated with poverty.

Who is “we” and are they for solving poverty before or after creating a school?  It’s a big part of the debate.

The “other side,” not surprisingly, argues that “schools serving poor children must focus on education alone and stop making excuses.”

So when did we (the other side) stop beating our wives or eating our young?

Perhaps part of the reason that Noguera, a veteran professor of education at NYU, is so frustrated that we’re still debating the “obvious point” (which, I gather, is the one suggesting that poverty causes low academic achievement) is that it’s wrong. Noguera is, perhaps, in the wrong field, and might have been better off in sociology or urban planning or economics. But even there, he would find himself on the wrong side of the argument.  As long ago as 1996, Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, no fan of leaving poor children behind, argued (in When Work Disappears) for “a commitment to a system of national performance standards for every public school.”  And he didn’t say, fix the ghettos first. He said, such standards would be “an important first step in addressing the huge gap in education.”

Noguera’s problem is that he conflates cause and effect; at least, he turns the purpose of public school inside out.  “We’ve long known that family income combined with parental education is the strongest predictor of how well a student will do on most standardized tests,” he asserts.

What some of us have long known is that public schools were started mainly to educate the poor.  And the only reason poverty is a predictor of bad academic achievement results is that educators like Noguera have made it so.  Instead of schools as tools of liberation, we have made them into great houses of mirrors, reflecting back on students the environment they come from.

Perhaps the most troubling statement in Noguera’s essay is this: “And schools alone – not even the very best schools – cannot erase the effects of poverty.”

I’m not sure where he’s been, but Noguera has not only missed the dozens of success stories – thousands, if you’re counting just the kids who have entered school poor and emerged poor but educated and ready for college – from our growing charter school movement, but decades of success from inner city private schools like the ones run by Catholics.

I’m reminded of a real estate developer I met at a conference of urban planners I attended several years ago.  He was in his 70s and had been building low-income housing in poor neighborhoods for many of those years. “We used to think,” he said that if we cleaned up the neighborhood and gave people a decent place to live, then the schools would improve.  I now realize that you have to fix the schools first.”

Clearly, this is a more nuanced discussion than that quote – or Noguera’s essay – suggests.  But until we recognize that education is education and that poverty is poverty, we’re not going to fix our schools or enrich our population.

As Whitney Tilson writes, the danger of Noguera’s argument, which, unfortunately, has been the winning one for most of the last fifty years, is that it is used “as an excuse for many schools’ utter failure to set high standards and properly educate students.”

It ain’t rocket science, but it does take, especially these days, some political will.  So, in honor of labor day, let’s determine to put kids to work, in school, doing school-like things, like learning their ABCs.

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