Our schools and politicians are failing poor kids for many reasons -- and the current debate ignores them all
Liberals and conservatives differ sharply on what the government should do to aid families in poverty, but just about everyone agrees that it should do something. Helping to alleviate the impact of poverty and providing young people with opportunities to escape it: that has historically been one of the essential functions of any national government, right up there with building bridges and defending borders. Poll numbers from an ongoing survey of attitudes by the Pew Research Center show that most Americans concur. Although public support for aid to the poor has weakened somewhat since 2008, as it often does during economic hard times, a clear majority of Americans still agree with the statements “The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep” and “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” And when the issue is framed in terms of opportunity, the public consensus is much more clear and unwavering: since 1987, when Pew started asking these questions, between 87 percent and 94 percent of respondents in every poll have agreed with the statement “Our society should do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.”
But while Americans remain as committed as ever to helping their less fortunate neighbors succeed, something important has changed in the past few decades: what was once a noisy and impassioned national conversation about how best to combat poverty has faded almost to silence. Back in the 1960s, poverty was a major focus of public debate. You couldn’t be a serious policy intellectual without weighing in on the issue. During the Johnson administration, the place to be for smart, ambitious young people in Washington was the Office of Economic Opportunity, the command center for the War on Poverty. In the 1990s, there was once more a robust public discussion of poverty, much of it centered on the issue of welfare reform. But now those debates have all but disappeared. We have a Democratic president who spent the early part of his career personally fighting poverty, working in the same neighborhoods that YAP’s advocates are working in today — doing a pretty similar job, in fact. But as president, he has spent less time talking publicly about poverty than any of his recent Democratic predecessors.
It is not that poverty itself has disappeared. Far from it. In 1966, at the height of the War on Poverty, the poverty rate was just under 15 percent; in 2010, it was 15.1 percent. And the child poverty rate is substantially higher now. In 1966, the rate stood at a little more than 17 percent. Now the figure is 22 percent, meaning that between a fifth and a quarter of American children are growing up in poverty.
So if poverty is at least as big an issue today as it was in the 1960s, why have we mostly stopped talking about it — in public, at least? I think the answer has partly to do with the psychology of public intellectuals. The War on Poverty left some very deep scars on the well-educated idealists who waged it, creating a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder for policy wonks. Remember, President Kennedy first talked about putting an end to poverty at about the same time he promised to put a man on the moon. The early 1960s was an era of great optimism and hope in Washington, and the Apollo missions fulfilled that hope. They were a huge national triumph, and their message was that if we as a nation set our minds to a problem, we could solve it.
Except we didn’t solve poverty. Some of the interventions that made up the War on Poverty were effective — but plenty of them weren’t. And plenty more seemed to do more harm than good. And if you’re someone who believes that smart people working through government can solve big problems, that is a harsh truth to acknowledge. It is painful to admit that making a significant dent in poverty has turned out to be a lot harder than we thought — and even more painful to admit that 45 years later, we still don’t know quite what to do.
Something else has happened in the past decade or so that also helps explain why the poverty debate disappeared: it merged with the education debate. Education and poverty used to be two very separate topics in public policy. There was one conversation about the New Math and Why Johnny Can’t Read. And then there was another conversation about slums and hunger and welfare and urban renewal. But increasingly, there’s just one conversation, and it’s about the achievement gap between rich and poor — the very real fact that overall, children who grow up in poor families in the United States are doing very badly in school.
There are several reasons behind this merger. The first goes back to ”The Bell Curve,” the controversial 1994 book about IQ by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. Despite what I and many others believe to be its flawed conclusion — that racial differences on achievement tests are most likely the result of genetic differences between the races — ”The Bell Curve” carried within it a very important new observation, which was that academic grades and achievement-test results are very good predictors of all kinds of outcomes in life: not just how far you’ll go in school and how much you’ll earn when you get out, but also whether you’ll commit crimes, whether you’ll take drugs, whether you’ll get married, and whether you’ll get divorced. What “The Bell Curve” showed was that kids who do well in school tend to do well in life, whether or not they come from poverty. Which led to an intriguing idea, one that appealed to social reformers all along the political spectrum: if we can help poor children improve their academic skills and academic outcomes, they can escape the cycle of poverty by virtue of their own abilities and without additional handouts or set-asides.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this idea gained momentum because of two important phenomena. One was the passage of the No Child Left Behind law, in 2001. For the first time, the law forced states and cities and individual schools to compile detailed information on how their students were performing — and not just the student population as a whole but individual subgroups as well: minority students, low-income students, English-language learners. Once those numbers started coming in, the achievement gaps they reflected became impossible to avoid or deny. In every state, in every city, at every grade level, in almost every school, students from low-income homes were doing much worse than students from middle-class homes — they were two or three grade levels behind, on average, by the time they left middle school. And the achievement gap between rich and poor was getting worse every year.
The other phenomenon was the emergence of a group of schools that seemed to defy the achievement gap: the KIPP schools and others in the same mold, like Amistad Academy in New Haven, Roxbury Prep in Boston, and North Star Academy in Newark. The initial wave of astounding test scores that students at those schools produced captured the public’s imagination. It seemed these teachers had come up with a reliable, replicable model for inner-city-school success.
And so these three facts came together to form a powerful syllogism for people who cared about poverty: First, scores on achievement tests in school correlate strongly with life outcomes, no matter what a student’s background. Second, children in low-income homes did much worse on achievement tests than children in middle-income and high-income homes. And third, certain schools, using a very different model than traditional public schools, were able to substantially raise the achievement-test scores of low-income children. The conclusion: if we could replicate on a big, national scale the accomplishments of those schools, we could make a huge dent in poverty’s impact on children’s success.
This was a very different way of looking at poverty than what had come before. It was exciting to many people, myself included, primarily because so much else hadn’t worked. We’d tried welfare payments to poor mothers, we’d tried housing subsidies, we’d tried Head Start, we’d tried community policing. And for the most part, poor children weren’t doing any better. But now it seemed that if we could make public schools more effective — much more effective — the schools could become a more powerful antipoverty tool than anything we had previously tried. It was a transformative idea. And it sparked a movement: the education-reform movement.
A Different Kind of Reform
In the movement’s earliest days, its proponents hadn’t quite decided what they were moving toward. They shared a vision — a national landscape of schools that performed as well for low-income children as KIPP schools did — but they disagreed on which policy mechanisms might best help to realize that vision. Was it vouchers? A national curriculum? More charter schools? Smaller class size? Now, a decade later, education reformers have mostly united around one specific issue: teacher quality. The consensus of most reform advocates is that there are far too many underperforming teachers, especially in high-poverty schools, and the only way to improve outcomes for students in these schools is to change the way teachers are hired, trained, compensated, and fired.
This argument has its intellectual roots in a handful of research papers published in the late 1990s and early 2000s by economists and statisticians, including Eric Hanushek, Thomas Kane and William Sanders, that claimed it was possible to identify, through a statistical method known as value-added, two distinct groups of teachers: those who could regularly raise the achievement level of their students and those whose students consistently fell behind. This idea led to a theory of change: if an underperforming low-income student was assigned for multiple years in a row to a high-quality teacher, his test scores should continually and cumulatively improve, and after three or four or five years, he would close the achievement gap with his better-off peers. And to take the idea one step further: if school systems and teacher contracts could somehow be overhauled so that every low-income student had a high-performance teacher, the achievement gap could be eliminated altogether.
In the past few years, this theory has been embraced at the highest levels of government. The main education initiative of the Obama administration, in fact, has been to offer states competitive incentives to rewrite or amend their laws governing the teaching profession. Many states have taken the federal government up on the offer, with the result that various experimental notions on teacher compensation, evaluation, and tenure are now being tested, in a variety of forms, in school systems across the country. At the same time, the Gates Foundation, which spends more money on education than any other philanthropy, has embarked on a three-hundred-million-dollar research project called Measures of Effective Teaching to try to answer definitively the questions of what good teaching is and how to create a better national teaching force.
Despite this consensus among reformers, the national push on teacher quality has been quite controversial. Teacher unions, especially, fear that it is a not-so-subtle attempt to undermine many of the professional protections that they have fought for over the past several decades. And whatever your opinion on unions, the fact is that the research on teachers remains inconclusive in some important ways. First, we don’t yet know how to reliably predict who will be a top-tier teacher in any given year. Sometimes teachers who seem to be failures suddenly make great strides with their students. Sometimes brilliant teachers suddenly go downhill. And we still don’t know if it’s true that a string of excellent teachers will produce a cumulative positive effect on the performance of low-income students. It seems to make sense that having a top-tier teacher three years in a row would raise a student’s achievement three times as much as his having a top-tier teacher for a single year — but it might not. Maybe the effect fades out after a single year. So far, there’s just no solid evidence one way or the other.
It’s true that the current system has tended for many years to assign the least capable teachers to the students who are most in need of excellent teaching. That’s a serious problem. But somehow we’ve allowed reform of teacher tenure to become the central policy tool in our national effort to improve the lives of poor children. And even those original papers, the ones by Hanushek and others that are now cited by reform advocates, concluded that variations in teacher quality probably accounted for less than 10 percent of the gap between high- and low-performing students.
This is the downside to conflating the education debate with the poverty debate — you can get distracted from the real issue. You start thinking that the only important question is, How do we improve teacher quality?, when really that is just a small part of a much broader and more profound question: What can we as a country do to significantly improve the life chances of millions of poor children?
And as the poverty debate has disappeared inside the education-reform debate, we’ve also lost track of another important fact: many of the most popular school reforms, including those high-performing charter schools, seem to work best with the most able low-income children, and they often don’t work very well with the least able. The problem is that the broad-brush way that the federal education department defines financial need tends to disguise this fact. The only official indicator of the economic status of an American public-school student today is his or her eligibility for a school-lunch subsidy, a government benefit that is offered to any family whose annual income falls below 185 percent of the poverty line, which in 2012 meant $41,348 for a family of four. So when a particular reform or school is touted as improving outcomes for low-income students, we need to remember that the education department’s low-income designation covers about 40 percent of American children, including some who are growing up in families that most of us would define as working class or even middle class. (In the Chicago public schools, just one student in eight doesn’t qualify for a lunch subsidy.) Within the education department’s cohort of low-income students, about half are genuinely poor, meaning living below the poverty line. And then half of those students, about 10 percent of all American children, are growing up in families that earn less than half of the poverty line. For a family of four, that means an income of less than about $11,000 a year.
And if you’re one of the more than seven million American children growing up in a family earning less than $11,000 a year, you are confronted with countless obstacles to school success that children in families earning $41,000 a year likely are not. There are the straightforward financial considerations — your family probably can’t afford adequate shelter or nutritious food, let alone new clothes or books or educational toys. But the most serious obstacles to learning that you face most likely transcend what your family can or cannot buy. If your family makes that little money, there is almost certainly no adult in your home who is employed full-time. That may simply be because jobs are scarce, but it also may be because your parent or parents have other obstacles to employment, such as disability, depression, or substance abuse. Statistically, you are likely being raised by a poorly educated, never-married single mother. There’s also a good chance statistically that your caregiver has been reported to a child-welfare agency because of a suspicion of abuse or neglect.
We know from the neuroscientists and the psychologists that students growing up in these homes are more likely to have high ACE scores and less likely to have the kinds of secure attachment relationships with caregivers that buffer the effects of stress and trauma; this in turn means they likely have below-average executive-function skills and difficulty handling stressful situations. In the classroom, they are hampered by poor concentration, impaired social skills, an inability to sit still and follow directions, and what teachers perceive as misbehavior.
Despite these children’s intense needs, school reformers have not been very successful at creating interventions that work for them; they have done much better at creating interventions that work for children from better-off low-income families, those making $41,000 a year. No one has found a reliable way to help deeply disadvantaged children, in fact. Instead, what we have created is a disjointed, ad hoc system of government agencies and programs that follow them haphazardly through their childhood and adolescence.
This dysfunctional pipeline starts in overcrowded Medicaid clinics and continues through social-service and child-welfare offices and hospital emergency rooms. Once students get to school, the system steers them into special education, remedial classes, and alternative schools, and then, for teenagers, there are GED programs and computer-assisted credit-recovery courses that too often allow them to graduate from high school without decent skills. Outside of school, the system includes foster homes, juvenile detention centers, and probation officers.
Few of the agencies in this system are particularly well run or well staffed (there is no Teach for America equivalent sending in waves of eager and idealistic young college graduates to work in them), and their efforts are rarely well coordinated. For the children and families involved, dealing with these agencies tends to be frustrating and alienating and often humiliating. The system as a whole is extremely expensive and wildly inefficient, and it has a very low rate of success; almost no one who passes through it as a child graduates from college or achieves any of the other markers of a happy and successful life: a good career, an intact family, a stable home.
But we could design an entirely different system for children who are dealing with deep and pervasive adversity at home. It might start at a comprehensive pediatric wellness center, like the one that the pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris is now working to construct in Bayview−Hunters Point, with trauma-focused care and social-service support woven into every medical visit. It might continue with parenting interventions that increase the chance of secure attachment, like Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up, or ABC, a program developed at the University of Delaware. In prekindergarten, it might involve a program like Tools of the Mind that promotes executive-function skills and self-regulation in young children. We’d want to make sure these students were in good schools, of course, not ones that track them into remedial classes but ones that challenge them to do high-level work. And whatever academic help they were getting in the classroom would need to be supplemented by social and psychological and character-building interventions outside the classroom, like the ones that principal Elizabeth Dozier has brought to Fenger High School in Chicago or the ones that a group called Turnaround for Children provides in several low-income schools in New York City and Washington, D.C. In high school, these students would benefit from some combination of what college-persistence programs like OneGoal and KIPP Through College provide — a program that directs them toward higher education and tries to prepare them for college not only academically but also emotionally and psychologically.
A coordinated system like that, targeted at the 10 to 15 percent of students at the highest risk of failure, would be expensive, there’s no doubt. But it would almost certainly be cheaper than the ad hoc system we have in place now. It would save not only lives but money, and not just in the long run, but right away.
The Politics of Disadvantage
Talking about the influence of family on the success and failure of poor children can be an uncomfortable proposition. Education reformers prefer to locate the main obstacles to success within the school system, and they take it as an article of faith that the solutions to those obstacles can be found in the classroom as well. Reform skeptics, by contrast, often blame out-of-school factors for the underperformance of low-income children, but when they list those factors — and I’ve read a lot of these lists — they tend to choose ones that don’t have much to do with family functioning. Instead, they identify largely impersonal influences like toxins in the environment, food insecurity, inadequate health care and housing, and racial discrimination. All of those problems are genuine and important. But they don’t accurately represent the biggest obstacles to academic success that poor children, especially very poor children, often face: a home and a community that create high levels of stress, and the absence of a secure relationship with a caregiver that would allow a child to manage that stress.
So when we’re looking for root causes of poverty-related underachievement, why do we tend to focus on the wrong culprits and ignore the ones that science tells us do the most damage? I think there are three reasons. The first is that the science itself is not well known or well understood, and part of why it’s not well understood is that it is dense and hard to penetrate. Any time you need to use the term hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal in order to make your point, you’ve got trouble.
Second, those of us who don’t live in low-income homes are understandably uneasy talking about family dysfunction in those homes. It’s rude to discuss other people’s parenting practices in a critical way in public. It’s especially rude when you’re talking about parents who don’t have the material advantages that you do. And when the person making the comments is white and the parents in question are black, everyone’s anxiety level increases. This is a conversation that inevitably unearths painful issues in American politics and the American psyche.
Finally, there is the fact that the new science of adversity, in all its complexity, presents a real challenge to some deeply held political beliefs on both the left and the right. To liberals, the science is saying that conservatives are correct on one very important point: character matters. There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged children that will be more valuable than the character strengths that many of the young people I profile in “How Children Succeed” possess in such impressive quantities: conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance, and optimism.
Where the typical conservative argument on poverty falls short is that it often stops right there: Character matters … and that’s it. There’s not much society can do until poor people shape up and somehow develop better character. In the meantime, the rest of us are off the hook. We can lecture poor people, and we can punish them if they don’t behave the way we tell them to, but that’s where our responsibility ends.
But in fact, this science suggests a very different reality. It says that the character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up. That means the rest of us — society as a whole — can do an enormous amount to influence their development in children. We now know a great deal about what kind of interventions will help children develop those strengths and skills, starting at birth and going all the way through college. Parents are an excellent vehicle for those interventions, but they are not the only vehicle. Transformative help also comes regularly from social workers, teachers, clergy members, pediatricians and neighbors. We can argue about whether those interventions should be provided by the government or nonprofit organizations or religious institutions or a combination of the three. But what we can’t argue anymore is that there’s nothing we can do.
Excerpted from “HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” by Paul Tough. Copyright © 2012 by Paul Tough. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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