Schools and Poverty

Matt Yglesias muses on the eternal question among education wonks: should we focus our attention specifically on education reform itself, or is that unlikely to make much difference unless we also address the broader issues of concentrated poverty that are largely behind so many of our educational problems? He kinda sorta defends the latter view:

The rising cost of health care, the shrinking public tolerance for tax hikes on the middle class, and the hyper-empowerment of the rich in the political system are combining to create a situation where it will be impossible to finance K-12 education in the United States. Institutions committed to “education reform” as their mission sort of can’t focus on this nexus by definition and the people who fund such outfits are generally not interested in funding talk about the desirability of higher taxes. Similarly, most American cities are in a position where if they improve their school system and hold housing policies constant, the medium-term impact will be to create a new equilibrium where poor people can’t afford to live in the city, not a new equilibrium where poor people attend the new good schools.

I’m going to get the ed people mad at me again — and I guess I’ll add the poverty people too this time — but I continue to think that the biggest problem here is simply that no one has any really compelling answers. Movies like Waiting for Superman (which I haven’t seen), along with an endless stream of credulous punditry, keep suggesting that the answers are out there if only we’ll fund them and take them seriously. But they aren’t. Charter schools are great, but they’re no panacea. (Not yet, anyway. Maybe someday after we figure out which ones work.) High-stakes testing might be a necessary evil, but it hasn’t proven to have any long-term value yet either. Etc. You can go down the list of every ed reform ever touted, and they either can’t scale up, turn out to have ambiguous results when proper studies are done, or simply wash out over time.1

And as Matt suggests, the tolerance of the middle class for raising its own taxes to improve education is pretty low. One reason, I suspect, is that people have largely lost faith that their taxes are being used for anything useful. If they pay more, they won’t get better schools, they’ll just get higher teacher salaries as the teachers unions hoover up all the dough. That’s especially galling for a middle class that no longer believes teachers are underpaid. Here in California, the average teacher makes about $55,000, and that’s for a job with good benefits, great job security, a nice pension, and a workyear of 180 days. Like it or not, your average waitress or truck driver just doesn’t think that’s so terrible.

So is the answer to address concentrated poverty? Sure. Except that, if anything, attempts to address poverty have a worse track record than attempts to improve education. Hell, attempts to address poverty have such a bad track record that even credulous pundits rarely bother writing about it anymore. Nobody really seems to have any compelling answers, and for about 90% of the country it’s just too easy to ignore the problem entirely. They won’t phrase it quite this way, of course, but basically they’re willing to let the cities rot.

I would really, really like someone to tell me I’m wrong. So far, though, no one has. At least, not to my satisfaction. But I’m willing to be schooled if anyone thinks I’m missing the big picture here.

1As near as I can tell, the only real exception is intense and persistent early intervention. It’s still no panacea, but done right it really does seem to make a difference.

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