How Poverty Is Like Global Warming (& Other Parting Thoughts)

Today marks Michael Petrilli”s final blog post with Deborah Meier—at least for now.

Dear Deborah,

It”s been a real joy to join you in dialogue these past six weeks. I very much appreciate the opportunity and hope we can continue the discussion in other forums in the months ahead. (Well, maybe after a summer break!)

Let me use my last correspondence to introduce one new idea and summarize some of the others we”ve explored—to determine just how far we”ve come in bridging our differences.

The new idea is this: Poverty is a lot like global warming.

As a , I acknowledge that global warming is real, that it”s a major threat, and that it”s caused (at least in part) by human activity. Here the science is overwhelming.

But unlike most progressives, I”m not yet convinced that we know how to stop it. Will curtailing our carbon output halt climate change? Or is it too late at this point? Here the science is inconclusive.

Yet many environmentalists argue that we should take drastic actions to limit carbon production anyway, even though such actions are likely to wreck the economy, which would drive millions (if not billions) of people into poverty. That”s not a price I”m willing to pay for policies that may prove to be nothing more than symbolic, or a salve for our guilty conscience.

So it is with childhood poverty. We know that it matters—a lot—when it comes to achievement in school, and in one”s life chances as an adult. There”s no serious debate about that, in the social sciences or in the public dialogue. Where agreement breaks down, though, is regarding what to do about it. As with climate change, we don”t really know how to fix it. And what many progressives advocate that we do about it amounts to—in my view—mostly symbolic actions—a salve for our guilty conscience. And some of these actions might make things worse.

The most obvious way to “fix” it is to provide “income supports” to poor parents (via welfare, tax credits, a higher minimum wage, etc.). By definition this will reduce income poverty. But as we both agree, Deborah, this won”t fundamentally alter the life trajectory of poor children. (I would also argue that some of these policies can also do real harm, by reducing the incentive to work, by infantilizing adults, by increasing taxes which slows economic growth, etc.)

Other anti-poverty programs—the kind that seek to develop the social and intellectual capital of low-income children—are more promising. But even here we must be modest. High-quality preschool, for instance, has great potential, but we don”t really know how to scale up the kinds of programs that have gotten dramatic long-term results. Our efforts at scale (like Head Start) have been almost universally disappointing. (Almost: Recent results out of New Jersey and Texas provide glimmers of hope.)
What else might we do? Curb teenage pregnancy; provide quality prenatal care; offer home visits for expectant mothers; eradicate lead from every American home; keep fathers out of prison by reforming our criminal-justice system. Each of these is worth pursuing, and could help at the margins.

But I will repeat my supposition that to make the biggest difference for the most children growing up in poverty, what we must do is offer them incredible schools—schools that help them to build the vocabulary, content knowledge, “non-cognitive skills,” aspirations, confidence, and relationships to “climb the mountain” to college or a middle-class career.

As for what those schools actually do, you and I agree and disagree. We agree that school-level professionals need a significant degree of autonomy—which is why we”ve both been involved with charter schools, I imagine. We both agree that there needs to be some sort of external accountability, too—and that test scores are hardly perfect arbiters of quality. You posit that a progressive education can provide children, including low-income children, with experiences they will need to succeed in our democracy (and economy). I”m more optimistic that a purposeful program that builds vocabulary and content knowledge (and much else, of course) will provide disadvantaged children the best chance to beat the odds. Let”s follow students from both types of schools into adulthood and see who”s right, OK? (Maybe we”re both right—maybe both paths work as long as the schools are “great” enough.)

Let me finish with one last parting thought. Fundamentally I”m a policy wonk so I can”t stop without leaving a policy recommendation. It”s one I first floated a few weeks ago, and I think it could change the terms of the school reform debate—maybe even end the school reform wars. It”s the Opt-Out.

Let schools opt-out of the current testing-and-accountability regime (and the soon-to-be common-core-testing-and-accountability regime) if they can propose alternative, rigorous metrics for which they are willing to be held accountable. State boards of education are probably the right entities to approve these opt-out requests; the boards” job is to make sure that the alternatives really are rigorous. Some metrics would qualify automatically—long-term outcomes such as college-going and graduation rates and employment outcomes. Others would deserve more scrutiny, such as portfolios of student work or improvements in school climate. If done right, schools would view the opt-out not as a way to “escape” accountability, but as a way to mesh accountability with the school”s own vision, principles, and beliefs.

Allowing for such opt-outs would require changes to federal and state law, for it would mean moving away from the “single statewide system” of accountability currently required by the ESEA.

But it would be worth it. It would serve as a release valve of sorts for educators and parents with legitimate grievances with today”s system. Do you hate testing and the way it warps schools? Measure long-term student outcomes instead. Are you leery of the common core? Can you show progress against the A.P. or I.B. tests? Great. Are you a career-tech academy with lousy test scores, but great long-term impacts? Prove it.

What do you say, Deborah? Are you ready to opt-in to the opt-out? (Which also means opting-in to the default—common core?) Here”s hoping.

Over and out.

– Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on the Bridging Differences blog.

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