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Accept it: Poverty Hurts Learning

Schools matter, but they're not all that matters

by Pedro Noguera
New York, New York

There has been a fierce, ongoing debate among educational leaders about how to teach poor children: One side has argued that we must address the wide variety of social issues (like poor health and nutrition, mobility, inadequate preparation for school, etc.) that tend to be associated with poverty. The other side has argued that schools serving poor children must focus on education alone and stop making excuses.

For more than 20 years, I've been associated with the first camp - and I remain baffled about why we are still debating such an obvious point. We've long known that family income combined with parental education is the strongest predictor of how well a student will do on most standardized tests. There is abundant evidence that in schools in the poorest communities, achievement is considerably lower than in schools with more socioeconomic diversity.

Studies on literacy development in small children show that middle-class children arrive in kindergarten literally knowing hundreds more words than poor children.

And schools alone - not even the very best schools - cannot erase the effects of poverty. In recent years, policymakers have focused on how to achieve higher test scores without addressing the influence of poverty. The results have mostly been discouraging. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan claims that thousands of schools across America are chronically underperforming; in New York, Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have shut down more than 100 schools in eight years. Inevitably, the struggling schools serve the poorest children and experience the greatest challenges. It will take more than pressure and tough talk to improve these schools.

Under both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, the federal Education Department has largely avoided addressing the socioeconomic challenges that impact schools. Instead, they've championed reforms like performance pay for teachers, raising academic standards and creating charter schools. Seeking to avoid poverty as an excuse for low achievement, Klein and other educational leaders wrote the following in The Washington Post in April:

"[M]any believe that schools alone cannot overcome the impact that economic disadvantage has on a child, that life outcomes are fixed by poverty and family circumstances, and that education doesn't work until other problems are solved.

"Problem is, the theory is wrong. ... [P]lenty of evidence demonstrates that schools can make an enormous difference despite the challenges presented by poverty and family background."

While it may seem like a good sign that our chancellor (who's done a good job, despite the recently recalibrated test scores) refuses to accept poverty as an excuse for low achievement, it's disappointing to see that he doesn't understand that it will take more than higher standards to bring about real improvement. Acknowledging this reality is not the same thing as making excuses for failure.

In Newark, I and others have recently embarked on a reform strategy, inspired in part by the Harlem Children's Zone, that we hope will confront the effects of poverty on children. Called the Newark Global Village Zone, the effort is being supported by partnerships between seven schools and local universities. Hospitals, nonprofits, churches and city agencies will work with the schools to provide services and support community and parent engagement.

We believe that by addressing the academic and nonacademic needs of students, extending learning opportunities and improving the quality of instruction, student achievement will improve.

There's growing support in Newark for the approach we're taking. The Brick City has some of the most successful charter schools in New Jersey, and we aim to build partnerships between successful charter and public schools so that the best practices can be shared.

I have been working with urban schools long enough to realize that the obstacles to success are formidable. Newark schools have a history of failure, and despite significant investments in private and public resources, success has been difficult to realize. Unfortunately, the Promise Neighborhood initiative - a federal effort to expand on the good work of the Harlem Children's Zone - will likely see its funding drop from a proposed $210 million to something closer to $20 million. The initiative would have provided seed funding to cities willing to take a more integrated approach to addressing the needs of impoverished communities, similar to what we are doing in Newark.

That setback need not deter us. No city has made a concerted effort to support schools by addressing the effects of poverty while simultaneously making a concerted effort to improve learning conditions.

We must end the either-or debate. In Newark, we intend to prove that we can raise student achievement and mitigate the effects of poverty. We need cities like New York to join this effort wholeheartedly.

Previously published in the New York Daily News, September 2, 2010.

Pedro Noguera is Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He is the author of the book "The Trouble With Black Boys: Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education." He is also the co-editor of the Education Rights section of In Motion Magazine.

Published in In Motion Magazine September 20, 2010.

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