Poverty at the root of problems in our schools

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Over the last 30 years, every White House administration has sounded the alarm about the failure of the American educational system. Whether it was Reagan’s ‘Nation at Risk,’ Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ or Obama’s ‘Race To The Top,’ every plan has attempted a quick fix that never quite worked. All of these reform initiatives have also focused on the use of test scores as a cure-all designed to motivate and inspire children, along with their teachers, to reach for the stars. The problem is, testing, or the lack thereof, was never the reason for the achievement gap or sagging performance in the first place, and tests certainly have no inspirational powers. The problem is, and always has been, one of equity.

Look at charter schools, the newly touted panacea for all that ails urban education.  It turns out that they are, as a whole, exacerbating educational inequality.  Stanford’s 2009 CREDO study, an extensive nationwide analysis of charter schools, found that while 17 percent of charters outperform traditional public schools, 37 percent “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student[s] would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.” A recent study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found that charter schools increase racial segregation.

No recent school reform initiative has tackled the most vexing problem that gnaws like a cancer at our schools–which, by the way, is not union teachers or divested parents, but poverty. Currently more than one out of five children in the United States grows up in poverty and our nation’s gap between rich and poor is one of the greatest in the world. Researchers Wilkinson and Pickett have found that the more unequal a society, the more disparities one will find in education, health and family stability.

Before we move on to the next best idea of educational reform and reinvent schools yet again, scapegoating teachers, students and parents in the process, let’s tackle the actual problems our children and families face in their daily lives. Stop imagining that Superman will save us if we continue to ignore income inequality which, particularly given Illinois’ reliance on property-based school funding, leads to glaring education inequality.

Poverty is the real kryptonite in our classrooms.

Jackson Potter, Staff Coordinator
Chicago Teachers Union