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Robert Putnam: Yes, Poverty Matters. It Matters a Lot.

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I recall reading Robert Putnam’s previous book, Bowling Alone, about the decline of civic life in America. It caused quite a stir. I am looking forward to reading his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. It seems certain to upset the “reformers,” as it blows away their assumptions that the schools are failing our children. As I read this review in Education Week, our society is failing our children, and we are not funding our schools in ways that help the neediest kids.

 

Sarah D. Sparks writes that Putnam “gathers a flood of research on the unraveling web of formal and informal supports that help students in poverty succeed academically and in life.

 

“If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for America’s children isn’t good: In recent years, villages all over America, rich and poor, have deteriorated as we’ve shirked collective responsibility for our kids,” Mr. Putnam wrote. “And most Americans don’t have the resources … to replace collective provision with private provision.”

 

The attack on public education by the elites funding privatization is part of the shirking of collective responsibility. The drumbeating for “choice” is a way to replace collective responsibility with individual preferences, which are sure to intensify racial and economic segregation.

 

Sparks writes:

 

Mr. Putnam directly ties education to economic and social class; he speaks interchangeably of poverty and earning a high school degree or less, and of wealth and earning at least a four-year college degree.

 

Schools are not to blame for the academic gap between rich and poor students that starts before kindergarten, but, Mr. Putnam said, “the American public school today is as a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids.”

 

He pointed to an analysis by the School Funding Law Center which found that as of 2009, 16 states had funding systems that provided less money per pupil to high-poverty school districts, while only 17 provided more per-pupil spending for districts with greater poverty. (An update of the study suggests those trends have worsened, with only 14 states providing significantly more money to high-poverty schools, and 19 states providing significantly less.)

 

Schools with 75 percent poverty or more offered one-third the number of Advanced Placement courses in 2009-10 than did wealthier schools—four each year on average compared to nearly a dozen each year at schools with 25 percent poverty or less.

 

Even where high-poverty schools get compensatory funding, Mr. Putnam told me: “Equalizing inputs is not equalizing outputs. Just because you have the same student-teacher ratio, just because you are investing the same dollars per kid, does not mean you are closing those gaps.”

 

For example, he noted in the book that high-poverty schools have more than twice as many disciplinary problems as low-poverty schools, and “equal numbers of guidance counselors cannot produce equal college readiness if the counselors in poor schools are tied up all day in disciplinary hearings.”

 

As a result, nearly 15 years after the federal education law was revised to “leave no child behind,” an analysis of the National Education Longitudinal Study data finds that even the brightest students in poverty can’t get ahead. Students in the poorest quarter of families who performed in the top third on national mathematics achievement were slightly less likely to graduate college than the worst math performers in the wealthiest quarter of families, 29 percent versus 30 percent.

 

The graph reproduced in this article starkly shows how poverty affects academic achievement and college graduation rates. This is not a problem that can be solved one student at a time. It requires a rearrangement of school funding so that schools enrolling poor students get the resources they need, not equal funding but more funding. It requires that the federal government invest in infrastructure programs that rebuild our crumbling highways and bridges and tunnels and sewers while creating meaningful work for men and women who can’t find jobs. That’s a tall order, but sooner or later our society must make decisions to do something significant to reduce poverty and inequality or to continue with the illusion that more high-stakes testing and more privatization of public education will solve those problems.

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