Citing a U.S. Census Bureau report, The Journal Gazette recently reported that 77 million Americans, nearly a quarter of the population, live in what have been designated as poverty areas and that this population has increased significantly over the past decade. A poverty area is a census tract in which 20 percent or more of the households have incomes below the poverty level.
The relationship between poverty and the failure of so many of our public school students is central to the debate between corporate and government reformers of public education and those who defend traditional public education in America.
Reformers are pushing for privatization of our schools; Common Core; standardized testing to hold teachers and schools accountable; and vouchers to help parents pay for their school of choice. It is ironic that the reformers are focused on enticing the most motivated families away from our “failing schools” while doing little or nothing to fix those schools or to help the families who remain in them. We have described this as the “politics of abandonment.”
The defenders of traditional public education insist that our schools are better than ever and suggest that it is unreasonable to expect more from our public schools until we do something about poverty, which they consider the biggest cause of academic failure. These well-meaning Americans, most of whom are educators, are engaged in what could be described as the “politics of intransigence.”
Neither side seems to recognize that poverty and failing schools are symptoms of the same pathology, nor do they understand how their actions contribute.
This current chapter in the history of poverty has evolved, since the end of World War II, as the population of people for whom neither the free-market economy nor the system of public education has worked has mushroomed. Over time, these Americans have become increasingly less hopeful and more powerless in the face of the challenges of life. What we have also seen is that attempts on the part of a benevolent government to soften the blow have failed to alter the reality for this population. What those efforts have created are dependencies.
We cannot continue to support those dependencies, nor can we simply abandon this population without our society reaching a tipping point after which the people who produce economic value will be unable to support those who do not. If the U.S. is to compete successfully in the dynamic world marketplace of the 21st century, we desperately need the best efforts of virtually every American man and woman.
What we must do is to attack the fabric of hopelessness and powerlessness under which so many Americans have been draped. Here is what we can do if only we work together:
We can repackage and resell the American dream to give people hope that they can, indeed, have a better future.
We can develop an educational process that will teach children that success is a process all can master. We can create this in such a way that it gives teachers the time and resources they need to teach children how to be successful.
We can teach parents how powerful parents and teachers can be, working together as partners and how, with a little help from teachers, they can literally change the world for their children.
Finally, we can create a sense of community in which we are united behind a set of shared values; a community in which we do care about one another and in which we are all willing to help.
We cannot accomplish any of these things, however, until we stop the runaway train of misguided reforms before it can damage, forever, our way of life.