Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Poverty Disconnect

America is supposed to be the land of opportunity—the one place in the world where a young child can grow up poor and end up anywhere he wants to be. ...We are called to care for the poor, to build them up, to provide and guide and generously give. Here is our chance. It’s time to take it.

This is from the final paragraph of an article in Christianity Today. It is part of a moving argument-- well, sort of moving. Because it highlights one of the great disconnects in the debate over public education.

The reformster argument is full of disconnects. One is the assessment disconnect-- the argument that says 1) we need to measure education, 2) standardized tests measure something, therefor 3) standardized tests will measure education.

The Christianity Today article is one of the more evocative (and less self-serving) presentations of the Poverty Disconnect.

Liz Riggs is a freelance writer in Nashville who has taught in a low-income middle school. Her piece for CT follows, albeit smoothly, all the pieces of the poverty argument, and it's worth reading just so you get the hang of spotting this piece of rhetorical tapdancery. Here are the steps.

1) Education is in terrible trouble. Riggs goes the test-score route on this point, repeating the idea that the US has fallen from some height of testy supremacy. This has been picked apart many times, but Riggs wants us to know that we are losing world supremacy in test-taking (though our list of disconnects includes the lack of any connection between standardized test scores and a nation's success).

2) The poor are hurt the worst. Or, as Riggs puts it, "As America’s education system loses its clout and disproportionately fails to prepare poor students, it is clear we need to change how things are done."  This also feels true, because as the poor are increasingly left behind in this country, schools serving them have suffered as well. But in the backwards world of reformsterland, the fact that high-poverty schools are getting less and less government support is proof that they should get more support. It's withholding food from your weakest child and then claiming that somebody, somehow must fix this malnutrition problem, as if you hadn't caused it yourself.

3) Common Core will fix it.  Yeah, there's no actual argument here. Just assertions. We have just made the leap.

Progress for some does not have to come at the cost of others; in fact, more rigor means the potential for higher levels of learning for all kids—not just some. It means kids of means and kids from poverty are more equipped for college and beyond; a rising tide lifts all boats.

This is the giant disconnect. Common Core will improve the life of students in poverty because rigor? Because unicorns and fairy dust? Because we say so? If you believe you have a problem, like, say, halitosis, and somebody comes up to you and says, "I can fix that. Just give me a hundred dollars and let me punch you in the face!" You are going to ask for some sort assurance that this will help. There are questions you might ask-- Are you a halitosis expert? Has this technique been tried? How did it work? Are there other techniques, and do they work? Does anybody else use this face-punching successfully? But when we use the poverty disconnect, we don't answer any of those questions. Instead, we just become more insistent about the severity of poverty, as if the worse poverty is, the more that proves that Common Core fixes it. But showing a problem is bad only adds to the urgency and the believability of the problem-- it does not constitute proof that your "solution" actually works.

The sensible response to the "Poverty is bad and also hurts education-- we need CCSS to fix it" must always be "What reason is there to believe that CCSS will work? Where is your evidence?" No reformster has successfully answered those two questions yet.

4) Flourishes. As always, there are little flourishes and touches to be added. These are simply a sideshow. Riggs goes with a hint of privilege guilt, far short of a full-blown "If you don't want poor, black kids to have Common Core, you're a racist." There's also the old Old Folks Just Don't Understand the new ways with the rigor and the deep thinkines, and have you heard-- with Common Core, you get critical thinking, which scares many people because it's so rare. Riggs disposes of the CCSS origin objections by linking to the Common Core website and saying it doesn't really matter anyway.

The Common Core poverty disconnect is simple. Even if we accept that US education is in trouble, and even if we accept that education is the key to fixing poverty is education (and I'm not ready to accept either of those assertions), there is a huge leap from those premises to the notion that Common Core will somehow fix them.

How does Common Core fix poverty? How? What piece of evidence, or even coherent theory, tells us that any such linkage exists?

Go back to the quote at the top of this post. All true, all compelling-- but what on earth would lead us to the conclusion that the most useful possible response would be the Common Core? We are called to care for the poor, but what in Heaven's name would lead one to conclude that the proper response to that call is to implement the Common Core. I've done a lot of Bible reading, and while there are plenty of Biblical imperatives to care for the poor, I don't recall any that involved rigor or the imposition of national school standards.

1 comment:

  1. Peter, the sentence under section 2 about the poor that says, "But in the backwards world of reformsterland, the fact that high-poverty schools are getting less and less government support is proof that they should get more support" doesn't make sense to me. Did you mean "isn't" instead of "is" or "less
    instead of "more"?

    I think this sentence of yours is a really excellent analysis: "But showing a problem is bad only adds to the urgency and the believability of the problem-- it does not constitute proof that your "solution" actually works."

    The writer tries to use a statistic about Kentucky to prove it works: "Almost two-thirds of students in Kentucky are now considered college ready—up from 37% in 2011." But the article from the link provided doesn't SAY that. It says: "about 62 percent of students are considered ready for college OR A CAREER" and later says, "just 19 percent of Kentucky students are considered college-ready in math, science, reading, and English, according to the ACT." That's either dishonesty or really poor reading skills on the part of the writer, but either way she's saying things that aren't true.