Education Reform Poverty Race

Arthur Camins: Boosting a Few More Children Out of Poverty Is Not a Worthy National Goal

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Arthur Camins, Director, Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education, Stevens Institute of Technology, critiques here the now-popular idea that the best way to end poverty is by improving education. While both parties continue to talk about race and poverty, they have given up on integration as a strategy. What they propose, he says, is that education is the best anti-poverty program. Unfortunately, this claim has neither evidence nor  logic to support it.


He writes:


Integration has largely evaporated as a key driver in the struggle for equity. It has been replaced by the idea that education is the most effective anti-poverty program. The argument is framed by the following ideas:


“A high-quality education offers the best path out of poverty and into to the middle class. The new and improved, common-core aligned, standardized tests will accurately reflect the differential levels of student learning in areas that matter for their own future and that of the nation. Students who perform poorly on these assessments are unlikely be very successful in their post-secondary college and career endeavors. As a result, they are headed for low paying jobs or unemployment. Therefore, if we can increase their performance on these tests they will be more likely to succeed and escape poverty.”


This argument, while simplistic, sounds reasonable and appealing. However, close examination reveals that it is not evidence-based, nor is it logical.


Camins adds:


The logic about escape from poverty only works on the individual level. While individuals are certainly better off with the best possible education, there is no evidence that attaining a significantly increased percentage of high achieving students would eliminate the need for people to clean our offices, homes and hospitals, stock our store and warehouse shelves or serve us in fast food restaurants. There is no evidence that employers will suddenly agree to pay such better-educated workers a living wage that would enable them to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter so that poverty would cease to exist.


Maybe, more effective teaching will increase the size, diversity and creativity of the nation’s knowledge workforce, who will subsequently spur innovation and new kinds of well-paying employment for others. Maybe, our superior innovation capacity will offset the competitive advantage of lower wage countries. These would be good outcomes, but they will not end poverty. Unless, we commit to real high-quality universal health care, food and housing security, and full employment at fair living wages for all (through, for example public investment in infrastructure improvement), it is illogical to believe that universally high-quality education will significantly reduce, much less end poverty. Imagining that it will do so represents magical, not evidence-based logical thinking….


Sadly, too many policy makers seem more committed to enabling profiteering from the results of poverty than ending it. The testing industry is an excellent example. Education policies sanction and encourage multi-billion dollar testing and test preparation corporations that enable destructive punishment and rewards for educators, gaming the system and sorting of students for competitive access to an increasingly unaffordable post secondary system that perpetuates inequity. State and federal education policies support costly, overly stressful and time consuming high-stakes testing in order to verify and detect small differences within the very large socio-economic disparities we already know exist.


Well-designed large-scale assessments can contribute evidence for institutional and program level judgments about quality. However, we do not need to test every student every year for this purpose. Less costly sampling can accomplish this goal. I am not opposed to qualifying exams- if they validly and reliably measure qualities that are directly applicable to their purpose without bias. However, imagine if we shifted the balance of our assessment attention from the summative to the formative. Then we could focus more on becoming better at interpreting daily data from regular class work and use that evidence to help students move their own learning forward. Imagine what else we could accomplish if we spent a significant percentage of our current K-12 and college admission testing expenditures on actually mediating poverty instead of measuring its inevitable effect. Imagine the educational and economic benefit if we invested in putting people to work rebuilding our cities, roads, bridges, schools and parks. Imagine if we put people to work building affordable housing instead of luxury high rises. Imagine the boost to personal spending and the related savings in social service spending if a living wage and full employment prevailed. Imagine the learning benefit to children if their families did not have to worry about health, food and shelter. Imagine if our tax policies favored the common good over wealth accumulation for the 1%ers.


Such investments are far more logical than the current over-investment in testing and compliance regimes. Education, race and poverty are inextricably intertwined. Let’s do everything we can to improve teaching and learning. More students learning to use evidence to support arguments would be terrific. But, if we want to do something about poverty we need to ensure good jobs at fair wages for the parents of our students. That is where evidence and logical thinking lead.


At least since the adoption of No Child Left Behind legislation education reform has been promoted as an anti-poverty program and a way to narrow the racial achievement gap. Maybe that appeal is a good sign about the conscience of US citizens. Apparently, many people still believe that the connection between educational achievement, race and socio-economic status is unfair. However, no policy makers have been forthright enough to reveal or admit to themselves their real underlying logic: We have given up on ending or seriously mediating poverty. The best we can do is to give some kids who are willing and able to work hard a better chance to make good. That is why we support school choice. No one will say this out loud because it sounds so pessimistic and cynical.


Maybe it is time to hold policy makers accountable in their own behavior for what they demand of students: At least be clear about your hypothesis, experimental design and collect appropriate evidence. That would allow the public to participate in deciding whether escape from poverty for a few more students is a worthy goal that represents our values as a nation.









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