Public education in the United States is traditionally described as the antidote to poverty. Americans consider it essential to their democracy that anyone from a low-income background can do well in school, go to college and have a successful career.
Some reformers take this argument a step further, arguing that better schools should be able to end poverty entirely. They say our current levels of poverty are due to the low quality of our schools.
For example, the website of Teach for America cites three measures of the low educational achievement of children born into poverty: one in three graduate high school, 18 percent attend college, and only 9 percent graduate with a four year degree. The organization argues that “These statistics are not a reflection of our children’s potential. Kids growing up in poverty can and do achieve at the highest levels. Instead, these statistics reflect the systemic lack of equity for kids in low-income communities.” They cite three obstacles standing in the way of educational equity: “racism, outdated policies, [and] lack of resources.”
It’s easy enough to see that schools in wealthy areas are of better quality than those in low-income areas. But is this state of affairs inevitable? What would happen if you put a top school in the middle of a poor neighborhood? After all, young families commonly choose where to live based on the quality of the local schools. If a poor neighborhood happened to have very good schools, then it would be an incentive for wealthy families to move there, and the neighborhood’s demographics would change.
More broadly, how much impact can a school really have on the economic achievement of its students? For example, it’s easy to imagine that a child with highly educated parents would not be doomed to a life of poverty merely by attending a dysfunctional school. If children from a low-income background were to attend a better school (in another neighborhood, perhaps), would they get better grades? Would they have more successful careers?
Paul Jargowsky, director of the Center for Urban Research and Urban Education at Rutgers University, argues that the way to improve education is through housing policy. He points out that zoning restrictions in wealthy suburban towns usually prohibit high-density affordable housing. But if you could build inexpensive apartments in these towns then it would allow poorer families to move in and attend their high-performing schools.
Other scholars are less optimistic. The Harvard Education Innovation Lab cites data from the “Moving to Opportunity” program in the 1990s in which low-income families were given housing vouchers to live in wealthier neighborhoods. An evaluation of the program found that for participating children “there was no impact on math and reading achievement, educational attainment, risky behaviors, or labor market outcomes.” To what extent, in that case, can we separate the impact of neighborhoods, schools and other factors on children’s success?
A recent study by Russ Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos at the Brookings Institute attempted to isolate the role of schools in determining educational outcomes. They wanted to measure exactly how much of a student’s success was due to their school environment–the teachers, administrators, curriculum, and so forth–and how much was due to other factors, such as their home environment and the students’ own efforts.
Whitehurst and Chingos gathered a massive data set of fourth and fifth graders in Florida and North Carolina, and examined the influence of students’ race, family income, cognitive disability, English proficiency, and where they went to school. They found that while some schools and districts consistently overperform, their success is barely statistically significant. The data shows that 90 percent of student achievement is due to factors the students themselves bring to the table. These results are consistent with prior research on this subject.
How should we interpret this data? Russ Whitehurst, who is generally skeptical of large government programs, argues that education reform will never be able to eradicate poverty: putting a top school in a poor neighborhood will have very little effect.
However, it’s important to remember that the data is not saying schools are irrelevant. After all, a large portion of the workforce got their education at underperforming schools. A high school diploma still has a huge influence on a person’s ability to find a job. An American who earns minimum wage is still richer than most people in the world, and this is due in no small part to the higher quality of even the worst American schools.
Furthermore, even if schools only determine about 10 percent of student achievement, that’s still a big deal. In the aggregate, that 10 percent signifies a large number of students who graduate or attend college when they otherwise would not have. School reform doesn’t need to end poverty in order to change people’s lives. Also, Whitehurst and Chingos only studied test scores: one can imagine that a good school would have a deep and lasting influence on students in all kinds of ways that would not be measured by test scores.
Additionally, smaller studies have gotten dramatically different results from what Whitehurst and Chingos found. Several charter schools, with student bodies that are mostly low-income and non-white, have achieved test scores comparable to those of elite prep schools. However, these results share the same uncertainty as the Brookings study: will better test scores translate into professional success in adulthood? Is a school that gets better test scores really better, or are the most important parts of an education unmeasurable?
Educators themselves have long been skeptical of the idea that better schools could eradicate poverty. Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars, criticizes this kind of “magical thinking” about the power of teachers. She cites Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who once said that great teachers are miracle workers, that they can “walk on water.” Duncan was trying to be inspirational, but Goldstein took it differently. “That was just staggering to me,” she said, “the idea that to be a great teacher you have to be like Jesus Christ, you have to essentially be better than human.”
Such supernatural expectations for teachers have a long history, Goldstein says. In the nineteenth century, at the height of monopoly industrialism and Jim Crow segregation, reformers still declared that teachers were the most important determinants of a young person’s economic success. In this sense, Goldstein argues that pinning all our hopes on teachers is an excuse to avoid the deeper social and economic injustices in our society.
After all, teaching in a public school is an extremely stressful job under any circumstances. Teachers are already liable to feel like they’re responsible for the success or failure of every single student they teach. Teachers already struggle to continue working despite the guilt they feel about each and every student failure. In that context, Goldstein asks, is it really helpful to proclaim that teachers ought to have superhuman abilities?
In a report for the news site Vox, Goldstein draws a distinction between the importance of teachers on an individual level and on the level of national policy:
Even the great work you can do with an individual child to open up opportunities for them, which can change their individual life–there’s a big gap between that and systematically, on a national scale, using teachers as the means to address our inequality crisis.
As a journalist, Goldstein writes about ways to improve education within this context of reasonable, real-life expectations. She argues that the most effective teachers tend to be older and have several years’ teaching experience, and we should pay these top teachers extra to teach in low-income areas. She also writes about the pros and cons of the Common Core standards, different models of teacher tenure, and the ways that Teach for America are changing in the face of criticism.
This kind of nuanced policymaking lacks the revolutionary thrill of reformers’ rhetoric about ending poverty, but it might be more useful in practice.
Ultimately, it’s hard for any quantitative study to determine the impact on poverty of schools, neighborhood-based programs or economic policy. But research and anecdotal observation argue that no single intervention, even one as large as universal public education, can solve every problem.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- In what ways have you observed the influence of good or bad education? How do you think your own life would have been different if you had attended a better or worse school?
- What do you think of the researchers’ claims that the difference between a good school and a bad school are minor? Have you had any experience with school reformers or innovative schools that argue the opposite? How do you think they would respond to these studies?
- Have you had any personal experience with underperforming schools? What do you think these schools need in order to do better?
- Idealistic claims that education reform can single-handedly end poverty are inspiring but probably overreaching.
- Studies have found that the difference between a good school and a bad school has a small but measurable influence on student achievement, but the vast majority of a student’s outcomes are determined by factors outside the school.
- Even so, schools are a hugely important part of our communities, and there’s a lot we can do to make them better.
© 2017 CYS