I thought yesterday’s Nicholas Kristof column hit almost all the right notes on the issues afflicting American education. He flagged the critical research by Claudia Golden and Lawrence Katz on the importance of improved performance from the school system to our future prosperity and the prospects for a decent mount of equality. And he rightly tags investments in early childhood education and using better methods of assessing and rewarding teacher effectiveness as keys to improvement.
But this part I didn’t like:
Perhaps we should have fought the “war on poverty” with schools — or, as we’ll see in a moment, with teachers.
For one thing, the war on poverty did a lot to improve education. If you don’t like how our current K-12 system is serving the disadvantaged, just ponder what it would look like without any Title I or IDEA. Our Johnson-era policy initiatives had their shortcomings, just as our school system has its shortcomings, but real improvements were made in this period that have made a lot of people better off.
But more importantly, it’s just incredibly frustrating to see this kind of effort to frame the country as facing a zero-sum choice between improving the performance of the school system and directly targeting poverty and related issues. Clearly, though, these are synergistic concerns. You can’t wait to make the schools better until we’ve gotten poverty down to Nordic levels. But when kids are hungry, that makes it harder for them to learn in school. When kids are sick, that makes it harder for them to learn in school. When kids live in violence neighborhoods, that makes it harder for them to learn in school. When kids’ mental development is being impaired by lead poisoning, that makes it harder for them to learn in school. When mom’s too exhausted after working two shifts to make ends meet to help her kids with their homework, that makes it harder for them to learn in school. This stuff isn’t brain surgery. And there’s ultimately no substitute for directly tackling these problems.