From John Curry, September 11, 2008
"Low scores are not a sign of a poor school. They are a marker of an impoverished neighborhood."
Best Reform in Education? End Poverty
The elementary-school teacher in a mid-sized Iowa town came across the little waif of a girl standing in the hall, sobbing. The child said she was crying because her teeth hurt.
A look inside her mouth stunned the teacher. All the girl's back teeth were rotting.
The school managed to get her to a dentist that very day, but it was apparent the little girl had been in pain for a long time. She had never been to a dentist and had no one at home who cared about hygiene. With pain on top of an unsettled and impoverished home life - the parent was angry that the school sent the kid to a dentist - it's no wonder the child was having trouble learning. You can't concentrate in school if you hurt. Or if you're hungry. Or abused. Or worried about your parents being evicted. Or if your parents are druggies who take the Ritalin that was prescribed for you. Or if your older sister entertains gentlemen callers in the next room all night. Or if your mom has a new live-in boyfriend every few months. Or if your job-losing parents keep moving you from school to school with long truancies in between. Or if you don't know where you'll be sleeping tonight because your dad's in prison and you get shuffled from one relative to another, and no one really wants you.
Any teacher in Iowa can tell stories that both tug at the heart and stir anger. Such stories are probably more common, in large and small schools alike, than Iowans would like to believe.
What's remarkable is not that the stories are commonplace - anyone who knows a teacher has heard them - but that they are heard so little in the public discussion about education.
As another school year is set to begin, the focus is once again not on the kids themselves. It's all about test scores, teacher quality and education standards. This year features a national advertising campaign from Strong American Schools, partly financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The campaign notes that schools in most other industrial countries outperform American schools. It advocates higher standards, more time in school and better teachers. The Register's editorial page has been urging higher, uniform standards for Iowa, too.
All well and good, but once again the discussion studiously avoids the elephant in the room.
Student achievement in this country is never going to significantly improve until attention is directed to the root causes of low achievement: failing families in a low-wage economy.
Sure, teaching can get better and schools can adapt their methods to help low achievers. Individually, caring teachers do what they can to overcome poor parenting, but they have the children only a few hours a day. The larger influence is at home.
If fundamental improvement is going to occur, it must happen primarily outside the classroom.
Test data firmly link income, achievement
The most firmly established link in education research is the correlation between family income and student test scores. Poverty is the single biggest predictor of low scores. It's a greater factor than class size or per-pupil spending.
Low scores are not a sign of a poor school. They are a marker of an impoverished neighborhood.
A student's low scores are not evidence of bad teaching. They're most likely a reflection of the child living in poverty.
Yet this overwhelming truth is virtually absent from the political debate over education.
The debate should be about how to increase the number of American children who grow up to become well-educated, successful adults. A clear-eyed, rational approach to doing so would not focus on test scores and on punishing "bad" teachers and schools, as the No Child Left Behind program does. It would focus on eliminating poverty.
To boost scores, close gap between rich, poor
Poverty in itself does not produce low student achievement, but the conditions of life for children in poverty are not conducive to learning. Conversely, the conditions present in higher-income families - stability, educated parents, security - are conducive to learning.
Teachers know that any student who has two parents in the home and can afford to pay full price for school lunches will do just fine on standardized tests. The goal should be to get every kid into a home like that or something close to it.
That's a long way from happening. In the richest country in the world, a certain level of poverty seems to be increasingly intractable, chronically pushing down the average on test scores, among other social pathologies.
Finland, South Korea, Canada, Japan and other countries that outperform the United States in education are not as wealthy as America, but their gaps between rich and poor are not as wide. The wealth they do have is more evenly distributed. So is their student achievement.
Politicians dodge issue of educational underclass
We might not want to talk about it, but one of the most serious problems in contemporary America is the deep and widening chasm between rich and poor. There is a segment of the population - think of the poor waif with rotten teeth - who are almost invisible to most of us but who are at risk of becoming members of a permanent underclass.
It would be an educational underclass, really, in which poor and undereducated parents beget poor and undereducated children.
The political establishment has not faced up to the problem. Looking at poor student achievement, politicians find it convenient to blame the schools, bash teachers and demand non-solutions such as vouchers. The political right chants a mantra that is uttered like one word: thefailingpublicschools.
Wrong. It is not the public schools that are failing. It is the larger American culture and economy.
Change economic policies that encourage low wages
Perhaps politicians fall back on non-solutions because the real solution - ending poverty and the conditions associated with it - seems impossible.
No law could persuade every couple to delay childbearing until they are financially secure. No government program can ensure that every parent provide a secure, stable, encouraging environment. No magic wand can rid America of the family-destroying ravages of drugs. No public policy can undo the damage done by incompetent parents or those who are scornful of education. No amount of scrimping can make the minimum wage a living wage.
A general rise in the level of wages might help, at least with respect to the all-important financial security of children, but the country is locked into economic policies guaranteed to hold down wages.
Those would be the first policies to re-examine if the country ever gets serious about raising student achievement. Then concentrate on changing the cultural traits that reinforce poverty, such as single parenthood and scorn for education.
The No Child Left Behind Act should be repealed as an education bill and reshaped into an antipoverty program.
Improve the economy, especially at the bottom, and strengthen the American culture. Better schools will follow.
Richard Doak is a retired Register editor and columnist, a lecturer in journalism at Iowa State University and an adjunct in history at Simpson College."