Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, believes that improved educational opportunity is the route to success for the 22% of America's children living in poverty. What a terrible shame for the country that he has this exactly wrong. I want to encourage Duncan to do some reading.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses what biologists call the ecology of an organism. A fallen acorn needs to have a lot of factors fall just right to grow to be the tallest oak in the forest. First, the acorn must be of hearty stock; healthy from the get go. Next the acorn must fall on fertile ground and there must not be other trees too close by to block out the sunlight. Next that growing oak must be a little lucky; no rabbit can come by when it is young and strip its bark and no lumberjack can cut it down before it has matured. It takes a multiplicity of inter-causation to create a great tree (Gladwell, 2008).
So, too, with children. Education matters. Good teaching matters. Poverty matters more. In his article "Re-reading Poverty", Patrick Shannon says that Duncan has it backwards. Shannon says, "There can be no separation among the social, economic, and political reform and educational reform (Goodman, Calfee, and Goodman, pg 45). In other words, all the problems related to poverty are also educational problems. Health care issues, housing issues, nutritional issues, living wage struggles, all are also educational issues. Unless we can attack all of these issues in a coordinated effort, we will never get the educational gains we seek.
What if Secretary Duncan encouraged the plutocrats who are funding charters, vouchers, Common Core standards and the vast testing industry to put their efforts and their money into improving the actual life conditions of the poor? What if he acknowledged that our problems are not instructional issues, but learning issues brought about by the debilitating effects of poverty? What if he led a war on poverty, rather that a war on public education? What if he recognized that scholastic achievement was inextricably linked to all of the issues of poverty? What if his education policy was shaped by this realization?
Two things would happen: Poverty would go down. Test Scores would go up.
More importantly, children would have a genuine opportunity to thrive in the forest.
Gladwell, M. (2008) Outliers. New York: Back Bay Books
Goodman, K., Calfee, R and Goodman, Y. (2014) Whose Knowledge Counts in Government Literacy Policies? New York: Routledge.