Let them eat iPads?

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New US Department of Education numbers, reported this week, show that there’s been a 72 percent increase in the number of homeless students, pre-K through high school, in just three years, between the 2008 recession and the 2011 school year.

That means well over one million homeless children are enrolled in school in the most prosperous country in the world. This population doubtless overlaps with the country’s 400,000 foster children, and is a subset of the 31 million schoolchildren whose family incomes are low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, because their families earn below 185 percent of the poverty level ($43,567 for a family of four).

Of 56 million students total, then, in both public and private schools, it’s a safe bet–and a national shame– that a majority of them sometimes worry about getting enough to eat or having a safe place to sleep.

Why do these well-known facts bear repeating? This is a blog about education reform and educational innovation. And there’s a not-so-secret fault line in the ed-reform and innovation community. It’s not between Apple and Google, but between those who believe that education, on its own, constitutes an anti-poverty strategy, and people who believe that poverty and inequality is the bigger problem and education only part of the solution.

The higher-ed division of the argument goes like this: Some say we have a “skills gap,” that America’s future economic competitiveness and prosperity can be remedied by more relevant, employer-friendly and entrepreneurial education that allows people to make their own opportunities. Others argue that it would be more reasonable to speak of a “jobs gap”–that it doesn’t matter if you study STEM or get a JD or learn to crush code, corporations are taking a larger and larger share of profits, leaving ordinary people to scramble for poverty-wage service jobs or “gigwalking.”

In K-12, the divide is starker. “Zip code is not destiny,” says the “no excuses” movement. The rest side with legendary reformer John Holt: “Poverty is not a reading problem, and better reading won’t solve it, and it’s a cruel lie to pretend that it could or will.”

Poverty is not a technological problem either. Education is important for equality of opportunity, but it can’t stand alone. Zip codes may not be destiny, but they’re pretty damn important, and we don’t make their effects smaller by wishing them away.

Sometimes I worry that as a progressive-leaning person focused on education reform I’ve backed myself onto a ledge. If you concern yourself with transforming education, day in, day out, you’re conducting your work entirely on the territory of those for whom education is the only politically and socially palatable antipoverty policy. If you try to widen the lens, like Diane Ravitch does in her newest book, you end up talking about a vast set of ideas that have nothing to do with education as currently construed: prenatal care for poor women, mental health services, and the like.

But maybe that’s not so important. Maybe the point is just to draw a line in the sand and say: poverty is the problem. Education is just one piece of the answer. Perhaps the most important purpose of education is to equip all young citizens to challenge the order that permits an army of them to sleep in the streets.

Do you agree?


POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON November 5, 2013

Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Post a Comment

Ted Curran

Thanks for posing the issue this way. I was a charter school teacher for years, teaching in different communities in California with vastly different socioeconomic realities. I’ve seen that poverty brings several issues that make it hard for students to be truly competitive in school. I had a student who had to choose between attending school and making rent for her family. I had students who wouldn’t get breakfast if not for the school meals program, and who often chose Cheetos and Mountain Dew from the vending machines instead. I taught a student who was one of 13 children, and the only one who had not yet been in the corrections system. I had students who would commute two hours each way so they could attend school in an affluent neighborhood, only to spend their class time there half-asleep from their rigorous travel schedule. Even in a class where every student has access to a modern computer, it’s the poor students who are busily researching financial aid while the rich students are doing their best work on the assignment.

Poorer students are often more frustrated in general due to the compounded challenges in different parts of their lives. On top of whatever personal/family issues they live with, they also contend with underfunded schools, crumbling facilities, inexperienced teachers, and an alienating school experience. By high school many students have already gotten the message that their education is not as highly valued as that of students in richer suburbs. Rightly, they are angry, and they often take that anger out on their teachers and classmates. Students’ behavior issues (and the resulting drama that spreads throughout the school community) must be handled by teachers during the same time they could be teaching. Students’ skills suffer, they fall behind grade level, and consequently require more remediation, more support, and more scaffolding than their suburban peers. Consequently, poor schools are much less pleasant places to teach in, so teachers often wash out or transfer to richer schools when they get the chance, perpetuating the “brain drain” from poor communities to rich ones.

‘Cognitive Overhead’ is a term we teachers use for all of the other non-information that you have to wade through before you can get to the real content you’re supposed to learn. In a very real sense, all of these stressors that poverty brings into the classroom are things that need to be worked through before actual learning can take place. These stressors are much less common in affluent suburbs, freeing richer children to simply come into a classroom and learn. Students in poverty bring their cognitive overhead into the classroom with them like weights around their necks, and spend much of their time paddling just to stay above water. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs specifies several basic needs that must be met before we can even begin learning– nutritious food, safe shelter, clean water, a sense of security– and it’s heartbreaking how many of our students do not come into school with even these basic needs met.

I would like to see an America where all students have their most basic needs met so they can simply enter a classroom and do their best work. I fear they cannot even get started without broad changes to our social safety net that help prevent illness, promote good nutrition, and connect homeless children with safe places to sleep and study. Is that too much to ask?

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