The disgusting and depressing poverty dodge

Joe Nocera has a new piece out in the NY Times titled Addressing Poverty in Schools, outlining the work of Dr. Pamela Cantor, a psychiatrist. Cantor has come to realize what other research has shown already: poverty imposes significant stress on poor kids, and makes it difficult for them to do well in school. According to Cantor, the plight of poor kids mirrors that of those subjected to other kinds of trauma.

Having identified poverty-induced stress and trauma as a real problem for the educational success of poor kids, Cantor has come up with a way to restructure schools. The restructuring approach is supposed to compensate and account for the stress and trauma that poor kids face. Nocera describes it thusly:

A three-person Turnaround team embeds in a group of schools for three to five years. One works with the principal to create a positive, disciplined culture, where students come to believe they can succeed in school. One works with teachers, showing them tools, for instance, that will allow them to handle disruptions while keeping the other students on track. The third is a social worker who helps train the school social workers to help with the psychological and emotional needs of children in poverty, while identifying the most troubled students, the ones who can drive the entire school. Instead of suspending them, or expelling them, though, Turnaround contracts with mental health organizations to provide them with services.

I am skeptical of how well this will work, and how scalable it is, among other things. My presumption is that it will fail, but I am open to any supporting data to the contrary.

What I find particularly amazing about this experiment — as well as the more conventional education reform efforts — is the extent to which it accepts widespread childhood poverty as an unchangeable given. Cantor’s reform effort is especially troubling because — unlike the other efforts — she fundamentally recognizes poverty as itself imparting a huge psychological burden on those who live in it. Yet, instead of pursuing policies that can dramatically reduce childhood poverty (e.g. tax and transfer programs), Cantor merely tries to ameliorate some of poverty’s immense harm by preparing schools to handle poverty-induced stress and trauma.

Debates about the education reform movement have generally centered on whether the reform gimmicks the reformers propose can actually improve poor kids’ educational achievement. I remain skeptical that any of them will do so significantly. But even if some of them do, there is still something very disgusting and depressing about the poverty dodge that is the jumping off point for the entire movement. We live in a society of immense material wealth, and there is simply no reason why more than a fifth of our children should be brought up in poverty.

When totally unnecessary poverty generates problems for poor kids, the most obvious reaction is to change our institutions to get rid of the poverty. But we have so conceded the impossibility of such a change that we have an entire booming industry of reform efforts aiming to salve some of the effects of childhood poverty while leaving the poverty itself intact. Could you imagine this kind of approach for any other problem? It would be like figuring out that some widespread chemical was causing a fifth of the country to fall extremely ill, and responding by stockpiling medicine while leaving the chemical in circulation.

This is not to say that I do not recognize the real political impediments to getting anti-poverty programs passed. I do. But I sometimes wonder how much reducing poverty ever crosses the minds of education reformers. Never have I seen a reformer come out and say: the obvious and only serious solution here is to aggressively reduce the incidence of childhood poverty, but given the ridiculous political resistance to that solution, we must do what we can to make some minor strides at the margins.

Given the sway — and quite frankly the huge money — these reformers have, messaging about the need to directly address poverty would be very important and influential. Right now however, the messaging seems to be that poverty is not really an issue, and that we can overcome its harms with enough gumption and hard work. That is exactly the wrong message anyone serious about mass improvements in the educational attainment of poor kids should be delivering, but its what the reformers keep saying.