Oh, the tried and true debate over which matters more- poverty alleviation or in-school reforms. Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske go in hard on ed reformers on last Sunday’s NYT Op-Ed page asking why “well-intentioned policy makers ignore, or deny, the correlations of family background and student achievement.” Ladd and Fiske take no prisoners in declaring that federal policy does not reflect the reality that poverty has a tremendous impact on academic achievement. Along the way, the authors throw out several examples of Harlem Children’s Zone-like projects around the country that recognize the crucial link.
I agree with the author’s recommendations wholeheartedly- who doesn’t want low-income kids to get health care at school? But the thing that makes me want to hit my head against the wall in this debate is the reluctance of either side to admit we need both- instruction/curriculum-focused reforms as well as a radical re-thinking of the school as a place to fight the effects of poverty. The best teacher in the world cannot replace the importance of three wholesome meals a day and consistent, safe housing. In-school health clinics cannot teach kids algebra. The “no excuses” crowd needs to learn humility and not be scared that admitting poverty’s effects somehow means they are soft bigots. And the poverty preachers have to support the hard-line reforms needed (that sometimes means not believing every teacher that ever lived is excellent) to make schools better.
Let’s shift the debate to talking about how these two ideas can co-exist for the benefit of students instead of continuing the same conversation.