‘Povertism’ in education unraveled

September 22, 2012

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By Larry Sand
Unionwatch.org

A word that is not in the dictionary but should be, “povertism” aptly describes the philosophy of the “povertists,” aka the “poverty is destiny” crowd.

It is claimed by many that poverty leads to a myriad of personal and social ills. The regnant theme of these poverty cultists is that until we eradicate poverty, unemployment, family dissolution and general ignorance will continue to be a problem. As with any myth, it gains currency because it sounds good.

But a peek below the surface demonstrates that that this belief is just plain wrong. If poverty causes crime and divorce, the Great Depression – the most devastating economic disaster this country has faced – would have seen an upsurge in lawlessness and family break-ups. But in reality, crime and divorce rates went down. In fact, the 1920s – a boom time in America – saw much higher crime rates than the 1930s, a decade when many families fell into abject poverty. And even during the latest recession, many sociologists predicted an uptick in crime, but in fact crime rates actually went down.

Could the opposite be true? Is it possible that poverty is not a cause, but rather a result of crime and family instability? Yes. High crime in a given area chases businesses and jobs away, which in turn leads to an impoverished neighborhood.

In the same vein, government largess, via welfare, has made things worse for children. For decades now, the povertists have contributed to the destabilization of families by incentivizing women not to marry which greatly increases the likelihood of poverty. As economist Walter Williams has pointed out, “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do. . . . And that is to destroy the black family.”

When we get to the subject of education, the povertists are light years from reality. The teacher union elites and their fellow travelers – poverty pimps at heart – are relentless in banging the povertism drum. They believe that poverty could be eradicated by pouring money into early childhood education and other sound-good, yet self-serving and failed schemes. “No Education Reform Without Tackling Poverty, Experts Say,” an article on the National Education Association website, typical of the mentality, claims that cuts in education spending will doom many-a-child to a life of poverty. (Never mind that education spending is at an all time high!)

Using an Education Week exchange with former teacher Anthony Cody and the Gates Foundation as his focus, edu-pundit RiShawn Biddle eloquently lays waste to the povertist argument. Several examples of Biddle’s wisdom on the subject:

“As with so many traditionalists, Cody would rather ignore the fact that reformers actually do talk plenty about addressing poverty, just not in the manner that fits his impoverished worldview on the role education plays in addressing those issues. He also ignores the reality that the education spending has continued to increase for the past five decades, and that much of the troubles with American public education has little do with money than with the fact that so much school funding is trapped by practices such as degree- and seniority-based pay scales for teachers that have no correlation with improving student achievement. But those are matters for a later day. Why? Because Cody’s puts on full displays the problems of the poverty mythmaking in which he and other traditionalists engage.”

…the biggest problem with Cody’s piece lies with its rather unjustified contention that anti-poverty programs are the long-term solutions for fighting poverty. One only needs to look at the history of government-run anti-poverty efforts, and pay attention to today’s knowledge-based economy, to understand why this version of the Poverty Myth of Education has no standing.

If anything, many of the anti-poverty programs (including welfare) has helped foster what Leon Dash would call the pestilences of gang warfare, drug dealing and unwed motherhood that have plagued Black America and Latino communities. Federal welfare rules barring married women from receiving benefits, for example, is one reason why marriage among poor blacks has gone from being the norm to being extraordinarily rare since the 1950s — and why 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock.

But anti-poverty programs and quality-of-life efforts aren’t going to address the reality that 1.4 million fourth-graders who are functionally illiterate are likely to drop out in eight years. More importantly, we cannot ignore the consequences of American public education’s failures on the very communities at which its schools are the center of the lives of the children who live in them. This can only be addressed by overhauling how (we) educate all children — especially our poorest. They deserve better than last-class schools.

The bottom line here is that the government needs to stop wasting taxpayer dollars by throwing money at poverty. In the world of public education, we have seen a tripling of edu-dollars over the last 40 years and have nothing to show for it. There is an obvious (although politically difficult) solution to our education problem, which Biddle addresses.

“…Overhauling American public education is critical to fighting poverty for the long haul. Revamping how the nation’s ed schools recruit and train aspiring teachers, for example, would help all children get the high-quality instruction that is the most-important in-school factor in student achievement. Just as importantly, reforming education can even help address the immediate problems that stem from poverty. After-school programs and extensions of the school day (and year) — the latter of which is a hallmark of the Knowledge Is Power Program and other successful schools and systems — can help poor families address child care issues by providing healthy, crime free, and nurturing environments in which kids can continue learning. Expanding high-quality school choices, including charter schools and school voucher programs, can help revive communities by bringing schools into communities that can appeal to both the poor and middle class. And Parent Trigger laws can empower poor families to take over and lead the overhaul of failure mills in their own communities (and help them take the next step of taking on other challenges in their own neighborhoods).”

While we are making some progress in the reform direction that Biddle suggests, we are still too much in thrall to the trappings of povertism and the lies that prop up this sound-good, feel-good philosophy that is destroying our children’s future in the name of saving it.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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