Poverty and Education

Progressive educator Deborah Meier and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation have been debating on EdWeeks’s Bridging Differences blog.

In his most recent post Michael claims that poverty is not the issue (even though, as another commentator to his post mentioned, the issue was not originally framed as poverty, but inequality, even in his own words).

From Petrilli’s Bridging Differences blog:

  • “Most were born to single mothers, and their fathers have been absent from the start, or by the time they turn two or three;
  • Most of their mothers were teenagers or in their early 20s when they gave birth;
  • Most of their mothers have very little education—a high school diploma or less–and thus few marketable skills;
  • Many of their mothers suffer from mental illness or addiction or both;

“If we give these families more money…will it erase the huge gaps….between these kids and their age-mates born into two-parent families? With highly-educated mothers and fathers? To believe so, you’d have to put as much faith in cash transfers and social services as some reformers put in schools. You’d have to believe in miracles.”

income gapIn response, I would say that tackling poverty and creating full employment and tackling society’s inequalities would actually help solve those too. Fathers are absent because they cannot support their families. Young motherhood is often a symptom of hopelessness, as is drug addiction. Michael shows data that America’s poverty is not really that much worse than other countries (though still worse even by his figures), so the problem cannot really be poverty (since he also accepts the data purporting that they do better academically). What he leaves out is that even if its true, those other countries do a better job of providing the supports for the poor that he derides as useless–housing, medical care, food, pre- and post- natal care—than the U.S. It may be those supports that keep fathers at home, create less single motherhood, and provide the supports needed for those who are single mothers.

While most critics of our current economic system and I think giving the poor more money and supports is a good idea, we do not see it as the solution either, but rather a band-aid, and when you are bleeding a band-aid is good to have! What is needed is a society that can provide meaningful employment for its citizens, that can provide decent housing, food, medical care, etc. It needs a society organized for a more equitable distribution of the resources.

A better education for the poor helps the individual student succeed, but it does not create more jobs nor reduce the overall rate of poverty nor solve the issues of inequality in a developed country such as ours. It does not change the number of winners and losers, though it just might even the odds a bit as to who gets to be winners and losers.

As John Dewey noted almost a century ago, a certain type of better education, i.e. one that help students participate and understand democracy and develop certain habits of mind, can be one of the aspects to creating that society, but it alone cannot do the job. And most of the reforms that Petrilli supports—more testing and top-down “accountability” based on that testing—actually create a less, not more democratic culture in schools, especially schools for the poor.

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