What We Talk about When We Talk about Poverty


doublespeak

As Mark noted in his last post, Success Academy Charter School CEO Eva Moskowitz recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Post in which she announced:

There is a myth in this country that poverty and race are overwhelming barriers to a child’s ability to learn. This is simply not the case.

On some level, Moskowitz is correct: poverty does not interfere with student learning. To get to that level, we have to dissociate the word “poverty” from both its literal definition and its commonly accepted meaning: the condition of having little or no wealth and the resulting lack of access to human necessities like nutritious food, shelter, clothing, books, and other things that make life comfortable and stimulating.

Once we strip the word poverty of its meaning, it becomes three meaningless syllables. At that point, Moscowitz is 100% right: those syllables have no impact on children whatsoever.

Those of us who are concerned about poverty, however, should keep the word firmly attached to its meaning. When we do that, we recognize that Moskowitz is actually 100% wrong. Over and over and over again, research shows that the elements that constitute the condition of poverty— including hunger, poor nutrition, illness, and lack of access to books— consistently and aggressively interfere with student learning. Over and over again, research shows that the #1 predictor of student learning is wealth, or lack of it.

Incidentally, poor children are also more likely to go to poorly lit, overcrowded schools that lack adequate books and supplies. That’s become even more likely in recent years because Moskowitz’s Success Academies have siphoned millions upon millions of dollars away from the public schools that serve the vast majority of New York City’s children.

Which brings us back to the topic of dissociating words from their meanings. Specifically, the word “public.” In her op-ed, Moskowitz claimed:

Success Academies are free, K-12 public schools, open to all children.

The word “public,” as most of us understand it, means “available to everyone”– like a public park or bathroom. Given that meaning, Eva Moskowitz’s schools are not public. Success Academies refuse to admit students they don’t want (they currently accept roughly 20% of students who apply) and get rid of students they don’t like.

Since Success Academies are not public, it’s kind of shocking that when the chips are down, their students can’t compete with the best and brightest from the city’s allegedly failing public system. But those were the results this spring when every single member of the Harlem Success Academy’s first graduating class failed the entrance exam to the city’s select public high schools.

It’s hard to know what went wrong, but we do know that we’re not allowed to blame poverty when students fail. And you can bet I’m not going to blame the Success Academy’s teachers, who get worked to the bone. Maybe we should just blame Moskowitz.

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