On Education and Poverty, and How We Talk About Them (Part 3b)

StudentsFirst Vice President Eric Lerum and I recently began a debate about approaches to teacher evaluation.  During Part 2 of that debate, the conversation touched on the relationship between anti-poverty work and education reform.  We resume that conversation below.

Here were the relevant parts of our original exchange, in case you missed it:

Lerum: The larger point that is made repeatedly is that because outside factors play a larger overall role in impacting student achievement, we should not focus on teacher effectiveness and instead solve for these other factors. This is a key disconnect in the education reform debate. Reformers believe that focusing on things like teacher quality and focusing on improving circumstances for children outside of school need not be mutually exclusive. Teacher quality is still very important, as Shankerblog notes. Improving teacher quality and then doing everything we can to ensure students have access to great teachers does not conflict at all with efforts to eliminate poverty. In fact, I would view them as complementary. But critics of these reforms use this argument to say that one should come before the other – that because these other things play larger roles, we should focus our efforts there. That is misguided, I think – we can do both simultaneously. And as importantly in terms of the debate, no reformer that I know suggests that we should only focus on teacher quality or choice or whatever at the expense or exclusion of something else, like poverty reduction or improving health care.

Spielberg: I believe you discuss [a] very important question…Given that student outcomes are primarily determined by factors unrelated to teaching quality, can and should people still work on improving teacher effectiveness?

Yes!  While teaching quality accounts for, at most, a small percentage of the opportunity gap, teacher effectiveness is still very important.  Your characterization of reform critics is a common misconception; everyone I’ve ever spoken with believes we can work on addressing poverty and improving schools simultaneously.  Especially since we decided to have this conversation to talk about how to measure teacher performance, I’m not sure why you think I’d argue that “we should not focus on teacher effectiveness.”  I am critiquing the quality of some of StudentsFirst’s recommendations – they are unlikely to improve teacher effectiveness and have serious negative consequences – not the topic of reform itself.  I recommend we pursue policy solutions more likely to improve our schools.

Critics of reform do have a legitimate issue with the way education reformers discuss poverty, however.  Education research’s clearest conclusion is that poverty explains inequality significantly better than school-related factors.  Reformers often pay lip-service to the importance of poverty and then erroneously imply an equivalence between the impact of anti-poverty initiatives and education reforms.  They suggest that there’s far more class mobility in the United States than actually exists.  This suggestion harms low-income students.

As an example, consider the controversy that surrounded New York mayor Bill de Blasio several months ago.  De Blasio was a huge proponent of measures to reduce income inequality, helped reform stop-and-frisk laws that unfairly targeted minorities, had fought to institute universal pre-K, and had shown himself in nearly every other arena to fight for underprivileged populations.  While it would have been perfectly reasonable for StudentsFirst to disagree with him about the three charter co-locations (out of seventeen) that he rejected, StudentsFirst’s insinuation that de Blasio’s position was “down with good schools” was dishonest, especially since a comprehensive assessment of de Blasio’s policies would have indisputably given him high marks on helping low-income students.  At the same time, StudentsFirst aligns itself with corporate philanthropists and politicians, like the Waltons and Chris Christie, who actively exploit the poor and undermine anti-poverty efforts.  This alignment allows wealthy interests to masquerade as advocates for low-income students while they work behind the scenes to deprive poor students of basic services.  Critics argue that organizations like StudentsFirst have chosen the wrong allies and enemies.

I wholeheartedly agree that anti-poverty initiatives and smart education reforms are complementary.  I’d just like to see StudentsFirst speak honestly about the relative impact of both.  I’d also love to see you hold donors and politicians accountable for their overall impact on students in low-income communities.  Then reformers and critics of reform alike could stop accusing each other of pursuing “adult interests” and focus instead on the important work of improving our schools.

Lerum: So I’m beginning to understand where some of the miscommunication is coming from. You speak a lot about how you view StudentsFirst’s (and other reformers’) discussion of poverty from the perspective of what you expect us to talk about, rather than from the perspective of our stated objectives. That is, what you deem as “lip service” is merely an acknowledgement of something that is not our primary focus. There are many folks in education reform – I have a few on my team – who could spend hours talking about poverty reduction and could very easily work in another field that more traditionally aligns with what you think of as efforts geared toward reducing poverty. But the route we’re taking is one where reducing poverty, achieving social justice, lifting the long-term opportunities for our country – they all intersect. And therefore what we focus on at StudentsFirst are the policy levers – what we think of as levers for reform or change. For example, creating the conditions for other reforms to flourish or for educators and school leaders to use their resources more wisely (fiscal transparency, structuring smarter compensation systems, creating more school-level autonomy) are levers, whereas something like instituting a STEM program or increasing funding for social and mental health services would be specific programs or initiatives. Both are great for kids. Both are needed in order to ultimately reduce poverty. But we’re squarely focused on the former, while critics seem to be expecting we would focus on the latter. This disconnect is made worse though because critics seem to believe that an approach that involves initiatives is the only way to combat poverty. There’s a lack of appreciation and understanding of what’s intended by reform efforts that target levers.

Spielberg: I actually wasn’t talking about the distinction between levers and initiatives; I was talking about accurate messaging and political activity.

My two critiques from above (rephrased and with my questions for you added) were:

1) StudentsFirst leaders and board members frequently suggest that education can improve the lives of low-income kids as much or more than alleviating poverty.  That suggestion is demonstrably false.  You could say the following, but don’t: “Research is clear that school-related factors cannot fix the achievement gap, but it’s also clear that schools make a difference.  They seem to account for about 20% of student achievement, and our organization believes we can maximize the impact of this 20% with an intense focus on certain policy levers.  We fully support other organizations that work on the anti-poverty efforts that are most important for low-income kids.”  Why won’t you speak honestly about the limitations and relative importance of the reforms you push when compared with other efforts?

2) Relatedly, StudentsFirst supports politicians (besides just Chris Christie, who I discussed above) who substantially harm some of the neediest kids: your preferred candidates have rejected the Medicaid expansion, slashed education spending, tried to prevent immigrants from enrolling in school, and actively discriminated against LGBT youth (though you finally withdrew support for your 2013 “education reformer of the year” after intense public pressure).  StudentsFirst says on your website that the candidates you support “have demonstrated a commitment to policies that prioritize student interests;” I find this assertion at best myopic, and at worst deliberately misleading.  How can you reconcile StudentsFirst’s candidate support with the fact that, on the whole, many of these candidates cause significant harm to low-income and minority students?

I appreciate, as you mentioned in a comment on Part 2 of this conversation, that you “created a school-based mental health program and piloted a half-dozen evidence-based mental/social/emotional health programs” in DC, and I’d love to talk more about the other issues you raised in your response, but I think your thoughts on the above points and questions are most relevant to typical reformer critiques.

Lerum: On the policy discussion, I would just end with this then. Saying that education can’t solve the achievement gap is demonstrably false only works if you base it on the education system we have now. To say that today’s education system cannot and has not solved the problem of poverty or the problem of the achievement gap thus far is correct. It’s also correct that in 60 years we haven’t solved the problem of segregation. But I got into this work because, like every reformer I know, I believe completely that we can do better than this. We don’t even know what’s possible because we haven’t actually tried. We’ve never run a public school system at scale completely differently. We’re not very good at breaking the mold of a model that hasn’t worked. But there are reasons – an increasing body of research – to believe that if we do, we just might get somewhere. That’s a theory of change. You can disagree with it. But you do not have the evidence that it won’t work because everything that’s been tried or done thus far has been done within some confines or under some of the restraints of the existing system. There are many limitations, that’s true. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of talking about those limitations through our advocacy work.

I would also add that there’s little evidence that other approaches that are championed as counters to reform will have a tremendous impact on kids either. I would love to see this “comprehensive assessment of de Blasio’s policies” that you spoke of earlier – but it doesn’t exist. Rather, there is simply a different theory of change – that certain other levers, be they class size or overall funding or whatever will have a greater impact than reforms we’re advocating for. What we need is a way to model, using rigorous research, what the potential impact of various reforms would be. That doesn’t exist right now either. But what I’m trying to get you to agree to here is that by attacking one side as only having a theory that’s not proven while not acknowledging that the anti-reform side isn’t exactly operating with a track record of success seems to me to be disingenuous, but more importantly, allows opponents to occupy this space wherein they own the debate on what’s good for solving poverty, what the right approach is to combat social ills, etc. And I just believe that way of thinking hasn’t gotten us very far and doesn’t advance social change.

As to the political issues you raise – we consistently say that we will support public officials who support the policies we believe are right for kids. I understand you have issues with our agenda – but there’s nothing inconsistent about a single-issue organization supporting candidates that support and will advocate for their issues. That almost always means as an organization we will support candidates with whom I may not agree with on a personal level when it comes to any number of other issues. But that is not unique to StudentsFirst and I do not think it is reasonable to expect us to answer for their stances on other issues or to ask them to change their stance on other issues. The issues we prioritize are those on our policy agenda and we work to stick with that approach, as do countless other organizations in other fields.

Spielberg: While I would agree with you (and said in Part 1 of our conversation) that the research on many in-school reforms is mixed, the suggestion that you seem to be making – that school-based reforms alone could potentially solve the opportunity gap – is contradicted by existing research and logic.  Research has never attributed more than one-third of the variation in student outcomes to school-based factors, we know that “children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten,” and there is even “some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months.”  Though I suppose it’s theoretically possible that these studies are wrong, that could be said about almost anything, and the findings you link about teacher attrition and charters in no way support that conclusion.  Our knowledge about the disadvantages of growing up in poverty and the past several decades of research suggest that this theoretical possibility is negligible, which is why I called that statement demonstrably false.

I certainly understand the sentiment behind what you’re saying – we are in agreement that we haven’t yet maximized education’s contribution to anti-poverty efforts, and I think it’s important to remember and highlight that fact – but all the evidence points to a relatively low upper bound on what education reforms alone can accomplish.  Recognizing that anti-poverty work matters more than schools does not preclude us from arguing that what happens in schools is very important for low-income kids.

I really appreciate having had this conversation and want to thank you again for going back-and-forth with me, but I believe we’re at a bit of an impasse.  My questions deal with the out-of-school factors, like having access to health care, that very clearly matter for low-income students, and I don’t think your response addresses the issues I raised.  You’re absolutely right that StudentsFirst isn’t alone in narrowing its policy focus, but the fact that other organizations also do so doesn’t qualify as a defense of that approach.  Talking about what’s “right for kids” means considering more than just education policy.

As I’ve pointed out to critics of typical reform efforts before, I think it would be reasonable for reform organizations to focus their professional advocacy on school-based approaches to the opportunity gap if you did two things:

1) Acknowledge that the best school-based reforms imaginable, while important, would likely only be able to solve 20% to, at most, 33% of the problem.

2) Avoid undermining the anti-poverty work that can address a larger percentage of the opportunity gap.

I don’t believe that StudentsFirst currently does those two things, but I will leave it up to our readers to decide which arguments they find more compelling.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Poverty and the Justice System

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s