What the Education Reform Movement Is Missing

Repeatedly, we have ignored poverty and how it impacts the education of children.
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A depressing statistic recently emerged from the world's richest economy. The Southern Education Foundation reported that 51% of US public school children now live in low-income households. Simultaneously, the education reform movement has gained traction and there has been an increase in high-performing public charter schools, which work primarily with low-income students. Is it odd that these are happening at the same time?

The education reform movement has rightly received attention. Charter schools which achieve results like those seen at KIPP, YES Prep, Harlem Children's Zone, and Uncommon Schools (among others) represent a major effort towards providing low-income kids a strong education. These school systems achieve significantly higher rates of college completion than traditional public schools. They are now a major part of the strategy of many school districts including New Orleans, Newark, Camden, Washington DC and others.

These schools demonstrate what is possible for kids, despite the difficult circumstances they grow up in. Walk into a great charter school and you will be blown away by the teachers, by the students, by even the walls which are flooded with inspiring messages. Additionally, you will be amazed by how hard the teachers work. 60-80 hour weeks are the norm and everyone works with an incredible conviction and dedication.

These schools are right that poverty need not limit a child's life trajectory -- but that doesn't mean that we should be okay with so many kids in poverty to begin with. Poverty is tough. And not just because it reduces what you have -- it impedes your cognitive ability.

This was demonstrated by a team of researchers, including Harvard Professor Sendhil Mullianathan, who studied how the same individuals perform on cognitive tasks when they are poor versus when they are rich. The article is aptly titled "Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function." You simply do not think as effectively with the stress of poverty.

According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics by researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, childhood poverty was negatively associated with brain development. Why should these results surprise us? When kids grow up in such environments -- constant worries about money, uncertainty about having enough for basic needs, and the assortment of other pressures of poverty, it inevitably makes their lives more stressful. And any adult who works with kids will tell you -- instability and stress in a child's life, which is common for those in growing up in poverty, makes it more difficult to succeed in school. Not impossible, but harder.

So, what does it say that 51% of kids in US public schools now live in low-income households? It says that we are moving the starting line farther and farther back for a growing number of children. And while there are more schools helping kids catch up, why must we live in a society with such disparities to begin with?

We should further realize the magnitude of these forces. As of 2012, 31 million children qualified for free or reduced price lunch. KIPP Schools, the largest of the charter networks, serves 59,000 students. YES Prep has 9,000. Harlem Children's Zone has 8,100. It's hard work to build exceptional schools like these and they require incredible talent and dedication. We should absolutely learn from these examples; but, we should also be realistic about the scale of the challenge.

This is where we must realize that education is not limited to the education sector. In a systemic way, we have been driving people into the poverty that we on the other hand are working to pull kids out of.

When the financial sector collapsed in 2008, did we not notice that the hardest hit were the poor and not the people who were responsible for it? And did we not realize there were children living in those households who continue to struggle?

When a number of states, solely for political purposes, refused to expand Medicaid did we think that would not impact children from low-income households?

When we slash social safety nets like unemployment benefits in the midst of a recession, did we not realize that beneficiaries are often lower-income families with children?

Repeatedly, we have ignored poverty and how it impacts the education of children. We have rightly asserted that great teachers and schools can transform lives and thousands of individuals work to demonstrate that every day. But the education reform movement has treated poverty as an exogenous factor, like constant bad weather which we must simply accept. Why do we rightly demand more from our education system and yet maintain a low bar for the other forces which impact low-income children?

Some say it's about building more great schools and developing great teachers who transform kids' lives, and they point to the growing number of schools which are doing that. Vocal critics often cite that more needs to be done to address poverty, which remains the single greatest correlate of education outcomes. Why can't we do both?

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