Ben Spielberg, at 34justice, has put together a short stark piece that juxtaposes five simple pieces of data. There is nothing new here, but putting these five points side by side is compelling.
1) There are achievement gaps already present by the time children enter kindergarten, and they are related to family income.
2) School quality is a minor factor in explaining the testing (aka "achievement") gap.
3) Economic success in this country is less common for low-income students who are successful in school than for high-income students who are unsuccessful in school.
4) The test scores of students in the United States relative to the test scores of students around the world aren’t all that different than what students’ self-reports of their socioeconomic status would predict.
5) The distribution of educational attainment in the United States has improved significantly over the past twenty-five years without significantly improving students’ eventual economic outcomes.
None of these are news, though #5 in particular is often overlooked. We've been improving achievement among students for decades; according to the theory of action among some reformsters, we should be seeing an increase in student success as they go out into the world. According to the theory, if Chris got better test scores than Chris's parents did, then Chris ought to have a better job and higher income. That hasn't been happening, just as students who spent their whole academic careers soaked in Common Core have not suddenly been tearing up college campuses.
Speilberg's conclusion is pretty simple, and not a huge stretch given the evidence he's laid out-- if we want to boost opportunities for poor students, education is an important thing, but it is not the most important thing.
Yet here is Arne Duncan, former head of the US Department of Education Reform, taking to the pages of the Atlantic to wax poetic on how awesome charters are, and how they are changing the world by raising the achievement levels of non-wealthy, non-white students.
Yet I absolutely reject the idea that poverty is destiny in the classroom and the self-defeating belief that schools don't matter much in the face of poverty. Despite challenges at home, despite neighborhood violence, and despite poverty, I know that every child can learn and thrive.
Ignoring for the moment that nobody is saying that "poverty is destiny in the classroom," Duncan is somehow confusing getting poor children to score higher in a narrow standardized test and getting poor children access to better, more prosperous and successful lives.
Duncan says that he is focused on the idea "that high-performing charter schools have convincingly demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels—and can do so at scale." There's plenty of evidence that neither of those things are true, but even if they were true, so what? The continued assumption that a high score on the PARCC is somehow a gateway to a brighter tomorrow is bizarre and dangerous-- bizarre because it has no foundation in reality and dangerous because it give policy makers like Duncan an excuse to walk away from the children of poverty.
Duncan says he's a "huge fan" of out-of-school anti-poverty programs, but he cites some medical assistance programs and moves on to this:
High-performing charters are one more proof positive that, as President Obama says, “the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”
The data says that Arne Duncan and Barack Obama are just plain wrong.