How to Avoid Inconvenient Truths

The New York Times ran an article last week that serves as a nice microcosm for our entire public discussion about education. When I read the headline “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say,” I was hopeful. Maybe the Times had decided to run a piece exposing, in our paper of record, what’s been an open secret known for decades: poverty is the root cause of our educational problems.

After presenting new and convincing data to this effect, the author decided that rather than expose an inconvenient truth, she’d go out of her way to confuse her readers and obscure the obvious. As Doug Henwood notes in his excellent analysis, the second half of this article relies entirely upon right-wing sources, including Charles Murray, co-author of the infamous and thoroughly discredited mid-90’s tome, The Bell Curve. Not surprisingly, each of these sources does somersaults to avoid reaching the most obvious, data-supported conclusions: poverty is the problem. Henwood concludes by rebutting one source who urges us not to address poverty, because there are “no easy answers”:

“Nonsense. The answers are conceptually easy, though politically anything but. You take money from rich people and give it to poor people, and spend at least as much, maybe more, educating the children of the poor as you do on the children of the rich. But that might make the Times’ audience uncomfortable. Better to flatter them on their excellent parenting.”

What does this have to do with ecosystems? It’s been demonstrated, again and again and again, that poverty has a pervasive, toxic impact on schools. If we want healthy schools, we need to get rid of the toxin. Until we do that, we’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, or cleaning up the litter in a landfill, or whatever metaphor for avoiding the real problem you think fits best.

2 thoughts on “How to Avoid Inconvenient Truths

  1. Will, here's a post by Peter Meyer that offers an interesting counterpoint to the New York Times article. Meyer's argument is that it is not poverty itself that stands at the root of low achievement, but rather “poor education.”

    I don't think either of these perspectives are counter to our model, frankly. When we discuss a deficiency in a school ecosystem, for example, that often relates to a poverty in positive interactions and relationships amongst the staff of the building and with the children, or it may refer to a poverty in deep, enriching, and meaningful content.

    There is of course the larger question of deficiencies of wider community in which the school is embedded. Critical to this is investment in early childhood education and parental support for the 0-3 years.

    But in keeping our focus on schools, and applying our lens of schools as ecosystems, we can see that whatever one's political perspective on poverty, the manner in which to target poverty within the school itself is to focus on the content that is delivered, and the contexts of the school environment.


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