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Julie Delegal: If we ignore poverty, any education reform will fail

 U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently said that “suburban” moms, whose children are about to face the higher hurdles of the Common Core State Standards, would soon discover that “their child isn’t as bright as they thought they were.”

In one pithy, impolitic sound bite, Duncan brushes aside deep and unanswered concerns about the reform movement.

The truth is that “suburban” (read: relatively more affluent) children in America, be they black, Hispanic, Asian, white, or other, will continue to do just fine. They’ll crack the new-standards code and raise their academic performance.

Fourteen years of Jeb-Bush-brand education reform in Florida shows that middle-class kids can do it. No doubt the “urban” students in Duncan’s dichotomy (read: relatively less affluent students) can crack the code, too — but not unless something changes soon. As community members, we “suburban moms” have a direct stake in every child’s success.

Despite No Child Left Behind, despite Race to the Top, and despite all the crowing about the Common Core, the single highest correlation to academic achievement has not changed. The strongest correlation has nothing to do with whether a teacher belongs to a union, or whether a student attends a public or private school.

The strongest correlation to academic achievement is still the socio-economic status of the child. Public policy and economics Professor Helen Ladd, of Duke University, and former New York Times education editor Edward Fiske, quote the studies and ask the question: Why can’t Americans admit that poverty matters?

The global studies — the ones that reformers say prove that America’s education system is failing — tell us we’re doing very well when we control for poverty.

The test upon which these rankings are based, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), compares the academic performance of our 15-year-olds to those in other countries.

Those results show that non-poor public-school students are getting a quality education. We don’t need wholesale reform of the system; we need to improve the economic conditions of students now mired in poverty. If we do that, they’ll improve academically too.

As a proponent of standards-based education, I join reformers in proclaiming that a correlation between poverty and poor achievement does not equal causation, and that the job of public education is to overcome that link — to break apart what might otherwise become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In a handful of troubled public schools in Jacksonville, dedicated teachers have used Florida’s standards as a roadmap for abolishing the link between poverty and academic achievement. They do it with excellent leadership, strong professional development, an understanding of the “whole” child, a laser-focus on backfilling academic potholes, and additional public resources. Jacksonville’s Florida Times Union quotes Duval schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti: “We’ve invested most of our dollars into our lowest performing students. This is something about which we should be proud.”

Reformers in Florida, if not Duncan, choke on that last item. With the exception of Gov. Rick Scott’s recent partial restoration of public school dollars, Florida’s politicians see nothing wrong with starving public schools.

When coupled with increases in money for privatized schools that the public doesn’t even own, stagnant funding tilts public schools toward failure. Failing schools, in turn, promote privatized alternatives that siphon away more tax dollars.

Notably, in terms of academic outcomes, privatization has done next to nothing to better serve Florida’s impoverished children. Yet the dominant education reform narrative blames public education for poverty.

While many public school advocates would argue that poverty causes poor academic achievement, there may be a third variable that is keeping our nation stuck in its correlative rut.

The United States is facing an innovation dearth, and a corresponding jobs crisis. One political response is to blame “big government” for our economic woes, and to eye the public treasury as a prize to be “won back” by entrepreneurs. Never mind that taxpayer money is still “government money,” whether it pays for state employees or private-sector workers.

The education budget and the criminal justice budget are two big pots of “available” money in state governments, a fact that has spurred the race to privatize both schools and prisons.

The anti-union narrative conveniently stirs the pot of political resentment during economic hard times. Pension and health insurance costs, privateers argue, belong in the “pot.” Meanwhile, privatization proponents are the ones salivating at the public trough.

The education reform brand that dismisses the effects of poverty becomes an “innovation” in itself.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently bad about making money off of educational innovations — tests, technology, tools, text materials, training modules — if they help students. Standards-based education, when combined with the proper public resources and the school factors outlined above, absolutely helps students. Privatization? Not so much.

The biggest effect of privatization has been to distract us from our most important work: improving our public schools.

John Adams wrote: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

The politics du jour dictate that the government should spend less money, unless, of course, it’s spending money on the privatization preferences of any given politician.

We have work to do that must be undertaken as a “whole people.” That work includes invigorating the Great American Public School System, not tearing it down.

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