Promoting Equity Means Addressing the Effects of Poverty

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During the keynote speech at the Children’s Aid Society’s Community Schools Practicum last Fall, New York University professor and education policy expert Pedro Noguera emphasized the importance of addressing the effects of poverty as a school reform strategy. Noguera stated unequivocally that “Poor students can thrive under the right conditions. Poverty is not a learning disability. But, despite the position advanced by leaders of the No Excuses Movement, the effects of poverty cannot be ignored. Poor kids, just as their wealthier counterparts, and perhaps even more, need good quality extra learning opportunities, health care access, preschool and more focus on all aspects of child development.”

Noguera argued that policies driven by political ideology rather than research evidence are responsible for the inadequate state of public education in the United States today. In his opinion, what we have been pretending for too long in this country is that we can solve poverty through education, despite the lack of evidence supporting this position. He cited No Child Left Behind as an example of politics, not evidence, driving policy decisions. After 10 years of implementation, there is still a 50% dropout rate across the country in almost every major city. There is plenty of evidence that the policy’s focus on high-stakes testing, privatization and punitive accountability does not work, yet it is still in operation.

“You can’t ignore the basic needs of children and focus on academics only, and expect to get equitable outcomes. Think of No Child Left Behind. How can you hold children from the South Bronx to the same proficiency timeline as the children from Scarsdale? Same standards, same tests—even though they are being educated under vastly different conditions, come from totally different kinds of homes and get different kinds of support. We call that equitable… Schools that don’t have the resources don’t do well, particularly when they are dealing with a population that comes with enormous challenges. The few that are very resilient may make it but hundreds of kids are not lucky enough. We have to celebrate resilient kids –but our work is about helping all children."

Another example of policy driven by ideology rather than evidence is teacher accountability—holding teachers solely responsible for student success or failure, while ignoring proven consequential factors that affect the academic performance of individual students. Noguera mused: “If the problem was simply teachers, how come in schools where teachers have been replaced there has been no, or at best little, progress in promoting student achievement and closing the achievement gap?”

Essentially, Noguera believes that the overall thrust in our society is toward inequity, so community schools are fighting against this strong current. For that reason, practitioners and advocates have to be very deliberate, very strategic and very aware of the obstacles that need to be confronted. “I would say we need a non-ideological, non-partisan evidence focus. It takes a lot of effort to make a school work –particularly schools with the burdens of poverty. Examples that do work should be taken to scale.”

Noguera outlined four strategies for moving the equity agenda in American schools:

  1. Meeting the needs of students by organizing and coordinating services across the community (including faith-based institutions and health resources such as medical schools);
  2. Engaging parents as partners and informing parents of their rights and responsibilities;
  3. Documenting the outcomes of our collaborative work, and challenging partnerships early in their work together to agree on a set of shared outcomes;
  4. Focusing on the quality of core instruction, helping teachers understand the connection between teaching and learning, and engaging unions around the critical notion of expanding learning time and opportunities for low-income students.

His charge to the field is to make sure that political agendas do not divide us and prevent us from seeing a very complex truth, a very complicated picture. “We must keep asking the tough question: how are children being served, and where is the evidence? “ We must keep challenging policymakers about their support of strategies that are based on ideology rather than on evidence.

One important challenge cited by Noguera is deciding what to measure. “If you only focus on that which is easily measurable, you may miss what really has impact. Does it benefit kids to be hugged in the morning? Well, I don’t know but let’s hug them anyway. Intangibles like school culture, which can be hard to measure, have impact on attendance and engagement. There are many intangibles that impact education results.”

Noguera also reminded Practicum participants that many of the educational obstacles we grapple with are ultimately political ones. If we want to change the state of public education in this country, we have to engage in politics. And that may mean reminding our friends of the role community schools can play in conquering educational inequity. “Arne Duncan created more community schools than anybody else in the United States when he was in charge of Chicago’s public education. However since he became Secretary of Education, we haven’t heard much about bringing community schools to scale. We have to challenge our friends and hold them accountable to do what’s right for kids.”