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A poor argument indeed

| Thursday, November 29, 2012

In the article “A poor argument,” Adam Newman argues that poverty is not an excuse for the state of the American school system today. According to Mr. Newman, poverty “has been used by the education establishment to lower the expectations of what schools and teachers can achieve.” As minors in the Education, Schooling and Society program, we believe that poverty is an integral part of the web of influences that affect education. It cannot be ignored.
Mr. Newman begins his argument by distinguishing between “traditionalists” and “reformers” in the educational debate. We find this categorization problematic and unproductive, in that is implies that “traditionalists” are not advocates of meaningful reforms in the educational system for all students. In fact, both “sides” are trying to reform schooling, just in different ways and informed by different research. Mr. Newman says: “Reformers believe that the best way to improve student outcomes is to provide students with effective teachers and schools, regardless of their background.” The policymakers he calls “traditionalists,” however, also want all students to have access to quality teachers and schools. They do not believe that background is determinative, but rather that it is important consideration in understanding why achievement gaps persist. The Coleman Report, which is widely considered the most influential education study of the 20th century, concluded that family resources matter more than school quality for academic achievement. Good teachers matter. Still, we believe that poverty has huge consequences for student achievement; conclusions that teacher quality and accountability are all that are needed to “fix” the system lack insight into the forces that shape student achievement.

Mr. Newman, you are right that quality teaching greatly impacts the economic lives of low-income students. However, we cannot ignore the immense impact that poverty has on students before they even attend school. Children bring with them a great variety of experiences and circumstances that cannot be neglected. Poverty is also a culture. In particular, poverty affects every aspect of one’s life, from housing, health and culture. Richard Rothstein, research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Law, dispels arguments for the accountability movement similar to yours in Class and Schools with revealing data. For example, by the time a child from a  low-income family enters kindergarten, he or she will have heard, on average, 4 million fewer words than the average middle-class child. Furthermore, compared to less-educated parents, well-educated parents read more to their child, use more positive affirmations, use more sophisticated vocabulary and encourage more inquiry. The implications for literacy and early learning are undeniable. There are factors outside of school instruction contributing to the achievement gap. Inequalities do not mean that low-income students cannot learn or should not be expected to perform well in school, but policymakers must acknowledge the effects of poverty when considering what matters in educating children. Indeed, one of the ways effective teachers make a dramatic difference for students of every background is by recognizing these variables and integrating students’ day-to-day experiences into his or her instruction.

The Harlem Success Academy succeeds because it takes poverty into account. According to the school’s website, it  provides students with an extended school day, extended school year, free and nutritious snacks and lunches, free transportation to and from school, and an hour of supplemental activities that are woven into the school day. All of these extra services dissolve some of the discrepancies between the experiences and lifestyles of students from low-income and high-income families. In other words, the school recognizes the impact of poverty on education and attempts to level the playing field.
Your want for improved education with an emphasis on high quality teachers is not antithetical to the issue of poverty. No matter how good a teacher is, if a student in the classroom is unhealthy because he or she does not have health insurance, the student will not be able to perform as well as students with access to middle-class resources. There are exceptions and poverty is not determinative. Still, claiming that school accountability and teaching alone can remedy a system in crisis will only perpetuate the polarized debate that pits teachers against politicians. Let’s redefine the paradigm. Schools matter; teachers matter; poverty matters.

 

Kelsie Corriston
junior
Farley Hall

Emily Flores
sophomore
Pasquerilla West

Grace  Carroll
sophomore
Ryan Hall

Alexa Aragon
junior
Walsh Hall

Madeline Basil
sophomore
Walsh Hall

Jennifer Cardinale
sophomore
McGlinn Hall

Colleen Doyle
sophomore
Pasquerilla West

Samuel Evola
junior
O’Neil Hall

Madeline Gillen
junior
Welsh Family

Jessica Goston
sophomore
McGlinn Hall

Kelley Gregg
junior
Welsh Family

Marielle Hampe
junior
Cavanaugh Hall

Kevin Huang
sophomore
Morrissey Manor

Christopher Keber
sophomore
Dillon Hall

Adam Mena
senior
Off-campus

Caitlin Ogren
junior
Pasquerilla West

Marisa Rieber
sophomore
Welsh Family

Nicole Rodriquez
sophomore
McGlinn Hall

Iris Schweier
sophomore
Lyons Hall