The Especially Deserving Poor

Dear Deborah,

A healthy debate we’ve started indeed! I’m not sure we’ve bridged many differences, though; maybe we should change the blog’s name to Bigging Differences.

In that spirit, let me float another provocative but commonsensical idea: We need to do everything we can–in our schools and in our larger social policies–to empower individuals who are working hard to climb the ladder to success. In other words, we need to spur on the strivers.

Let me explain some of my assumptions.

1. As we’ve been discussing, I still believe in the promise of upward mobility. I don’t buy into the dystopia of some on the left that pictures a future with an eviscerated middle class, opportunities only for the elite, and a vast dependent population. Times are tough now, but economic growth and jobs will return; the American Dream will be back.

2. But I’m no utopian. Not all children born into poverty are going to make it out by adulthood. Most face powerful disadvantages–dysfunctional families, substance abuse, crime, segregation, broken economies, bad schools, etc.–and not everyone will be able to overcome them. Surely, though, we can do better than our current track record, which is to lift roughly half of all poor children into the working or middle class by the age of 25.

3. Climbing the ladder of opportunity takes effort–by individuals and by their families. And it often requires help. I’m not arguing for a pure “bootstraps” approach to fighting poverty–poor children need all manner of supports in order to make it–but no one is going to succeed unless they want to go after the prize themselves.

A good many of our policies and programs, then, should be designed to help people with the drive, work ethic, tenacity, and motivation to rise. We should clear any obstacles in their path. We should empower them with opportunities. And, at all costs, we should avoid undercutting their efforts. In short, we should bring an ethos of meritocracy back to our anti-poverty efforts–the same ethos that still works relatively well at the top of our social structures and could work equally well at the bottom.

What would that mean, exactly? Here are some suggestions focused on education.

1. Schools must be orderly, safe, high-expectations havens. There’s a movement today to make it harder to suspend or expel disruptive children or to chide charter schools that enforce strict norms of behavior. That’s a big mistake. To be sure, we should use discipline programs that are effective, and sky-high expulsion rates are often the sign of a poorly run school. But we should be at least as concerned–if not more concerned–about the students who are trying to learn and follow the rules as we are about their disruptive peers. If suspending (or relocating) one student means giving 25 others a better chance to learn, let’s do it.

2. High achievers must be challenged and rewarded. As Tom Loveless has shown, the anti-tracking craze that swept through our schools in the 80s and 90s left many suburban schools untouched but wreaked havoc in our poorest urban communities. While the impulse might have stemmed from concerns over “equity,” the result was that high-achieving poor kids forfeited the opportunity to be in “gifted-and-talented” classes, honors tracks, or fast-moving Advanced Placement courses. As all of these programs were democratized or washed away, needy high achievers were forced into classrooms with lower-performing peers, which almost surely slowed their achievement and immersed them in a culture in which being smart wasn’t cool. These policies, too, need to be reversed, particularly in high-poverty schools. While no one should be placed irrevocably in a dead-end “low-level” track, we absolutely need classrooms–or whole schools–where needy, bright, motivated youngsters can be challenged and can learn side by side with others who share their thirst for knowledge.

3. The strivers should get their fair share of the resources. A common mistake in education policy is to think that equity demands a near-exclusive focus on the very most disadvantaged students, the toughest cases, the absolutely lowest performing pupils. Surely they deserve help, and No Child Left Behind appropriately shined a spotlight on their needs. But let’s not overlook their slightly less disadvantaged peers–the boys and girls who come from low-income but perhaps not as dysfunctional homes and who aspire to graduate from college and enter the middle class. How could we help them? In higher education, for example, we should set academic standards for receiving Pell Grants. Only young people who are ready for college-level work–or perhaps just a notch below–should be eligible. And they should get grants that are much higher than what we offer today, along with all manner of supports. But we should also be willing to tell other students who are far below college-readiness levels–say, those reading or doing math at an eighth-grade level or lower–that college isn’t for them. Instead, we spend billions of Pell Grant dollars on young people who toil in remedial education and almost inevitably drop out.

If some of these policies sound familiar, it’s because once upon a time we embraced them–and they worked. Have you read the new book by Alison Stewart called First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School? In a new Education Next book review, AEI’s Michael McShane explains that D.C.’s Dunbar, circa 1920,

1. Was selective of the students that it allowed in–Dunbar required passage of an 8th grade exit exam or a high school placement test for students from outside the district;

2. Had an unbelievably strict discipline system–The student handbook covered topics ranging from grooming requirements (daily baths and thrice daily tooth brushing) to recommending types of friends that students should have. (“Girls and boys who fail in lessons, who are unsatisfactory in deportments or careless in their habits, should not be chosen as companions.”) The handbook told students how to walk down the street and reviewed proper dancing protocols (“Boys, after dancing thank your partner and escort her back to her seat”) and how to sit, walk, and function within the school.

3. Set an “astronomically” high academic standard for its students–For example, the Board of Education had to intervene to lower the amount of homework to one hour per subject per night.

4. Flunked out a large number of students–Stewart quotes a report from the 1920s that stated “thirty-seven left the first semester, the majority of these being self-supporting pupils who lacked the courage and finance to continue the work”

5. Tracked its students into different academic levels–Taking it a step farther, it even tracked students into the more vocationally oriented Cardozo High if they couldn’t cut it at Dunbar.

And the results?

Though relegated to second-class status and stifled at every turn, Dunbar produced a coterie of graduates that the most elite schools in the country would envy.  Doctors, lawyers, Ivy League professors, generals, and titans of business all graced and were graced by Dunbar’s faculty and community.

And this, of course, was in the Jim Crow era.

Dunbar later became a regular, de-tracked, “comprehensive” high school–and started its long slide. Would anyone argue that Washington, D.C., is better off as a result?

Our message to young people, especially those growing up in poverty, should be clear: If you’re willing to do the work, we’ll clear your path to the middle class.


– Mike Petrilli

This article originally appeared on the Bridging Differences blog, where Mike Petrilli is debating Deborah Meier.

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