Critic: Education Reformers’ “Huge Error?” Ignoring Poverty

Padlocked schoolyard

August 14, 2012; Impatient Optimists (Official Gates Foundation Blog)

Anthony Cody of Education Week takes on one aspect of the education funding of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which, by the way, subsidizes Education Week itself), asking whether education is well served by the typical kind of education reforms that foundations like Gates promote. Cody says that Gates “asserts that teacher effectiveness is the best lever in this regard, and it has focused most of its research and advocacy on promoting public investment in systems that measure and promote teacher effectiveness.”

Cody further explains, “In the name of reform, the Gates Foundation has wielded its political influence to effectively shift public funds, earmarked for the service of poor children, away from investment in those children’s direct education experience. Through the Race to the Top and NCLB [No Child Left Behind] waiver conditions, the U.S. Department of Education has instead dedicated public resources to creating state and federal mandates for the Gates Foundation’s costly project—making sure every aspect of our educational system is ‘driven by data.’”

Cody’s analysis? “This is a huge error. In the U.S., the linchpin for education is not teacher effectiveness or data-driven management systems. It is the effects of poverty and racial isolation on our children.” He notes that “the differences between teachers only account for at most 20% of the variance in student test scores, and more than 60% of score variance correlates to out-of-school factors,” concluding that policies such as those promulgated by Gates “ignore the inequitable and inadequate resources available to low-income children in their homes and communities, as well as their schools.”

A teacher from high-poverty schools in Oakland, Calif., Cody thinks Gates is on the wrong track and he challenges the lockstep catechism of the educational reformers of our time: “One of the central tenets advanced by many education reformers is that poverty is used as an excuse, a bogus justification for poor academic performance, that allows schools and teachers in poor neighborhoods to remain ineffective. Therefore, the best way to beat poverty in these circumstances is to set high expectations for everyone, hold teachers accountable for increasing test scores, and accept no excuses.” But Cody explains in detail exactly what poor kids in schools face outside of their schools that affects their school performance:

  • As many as one-third of kids living in violent inner city neighborhoods have PTSD, which is “nearly twice the rate reported for troops returning from war zones in Iraq;”

  • There is a correlation between kids’ low test scores are their proximity to murders in their area;

  • At preschool ages, children with parents who don’t have high school degrees have vocabularies two or three times smaller than those with college-educated parents or caregivers;

  • Developmental delays in children are often related to malnutrition associated with poverty;

  • Stress due to parents’ unemployment, depression, inadequate housing, etc., all have negative effects on brain development; and

  • More than one million students are homeless, with one child in ten suffering through a home foreclosure.

Cody charges that “‘impatient’ reformers want schools alone to remedy the effect of poverty.” He whacks an economist who suggested that the U.S. should improve education scores to match Finland’s by pointing out that Finland has a child poverty rate of 2 percent while 22 percent of kids are below the poverty level in the U.S.

In a blast of candor directed at a host foundation, Cody takes aim at Bill Gates himself, noting that while Gates said in January that the wealthy should pay more taxes, Gates’s speech to the nation’s governors in February didn’t mention problems of poverty or the nation’s wealth gap, nor did it encourage governors to increase funding for public education. Rather, Cody describes Gates as suggesting “that [the governors] might save money by increasing class sizes, and ending the practice of rewarding teachers for advanced degrees.” Cody concludes by citing one of our favorite education reformers who was out there doing work in the public schools long before the social entrepreneurs found short-term inner city teaching to be hip: “The ‘savage inequalities’ that Jonathan Kozol wrote of two decades ago are, shamefully, even worse.”

Hooray for Cody for telling it like it is—in the maw of the foundation that pays for the policies he critiques.—Rick Cohen

  • Jon

    It occurred to me that I should share my perception about the hypocrisy of using VAM for teacher evaluations while claiming that poverty is not a significant “in school” factor. All VAM’s try to account for the SES of individual students to some extent or another, try being the operative word here. If poverty is not a significant issue, then why do all VAM’s have a component that seeks to adjust for it? Will the deformers admit that poverty is in fact a serious in school factor or will they abandon VAM or will they continue to lie about it all? Lie it is! No profit in the truth on this one!

  • mark webber

    As a teacher of 22 years and person who grew up in extreme poverty in South Texas, I would say in defense of Bill Gates and many law makers, that the way that poverty affects a person is so unconventional that it is no wonder that these people cannot imagine what effects it might have on a student. While “have nots” have no trouble imagining what a life with sufficient shelter, food, health care and adequate living conditions might be like because that is their daily dream, the “haves” cannot ever fathom what a disabling effect poverty can be unless they have had to live in those circumstances. Good call on Cody’s part.

  • Mike McGalliard

    The poverty debate when it comes to education reform is one of the most ineffective discussions I’ve witnessed. One side says “it’s poverty, stupid,” and the other says “it’s teachers, stupid.” Of course it’s poverty and its teachers, so what’s the argument? That we have to fix poverty before we can improve schools? Or that teachers are so awesome they can fix anything, from math scores, to nutrition related disease to neighborhood violence”? The “it’s poverty” side of the debate is right about funding, and about the need to change the conditions of poverty, but that side is often quick to toss out solutions that have worked elsewhere to improve high poverty schools, and so the argument comes off as a bit fatalistic.

    And the “it’s teachers” side of the debate are right that teacher evaluation systems are broken and seniority based work rules aren’t good for most schools. But the heavy focus on improving teaching and using complex formulas like VAM does divert focus from the complexity of the challenges that high poverty schools face.