Too Complex for a Sound Bite (Even from Bill Gates)?

Ever the education reformer, Bill Gates told the a National Urban League audience this:

"Let me acknowledge that I don't understand in a personal way the challenges that poverty creates for families, and schools and teachers," the billionaire said at the civil rights group's annual convention. "I don't ever want to minimize it. Poverty is a terrible obstacle. But we can't let it be an excuse.

We know you can have a good school in a poor neighborhood," said Gates. "So let's end the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education. I say it's more the other way around: Improving education is the best way to solve poverty."

So first of all, is that a common myth?  That poverty has to be solved (or severely curtailed) before education can help?

Second, I get that you can't let poverty stand in the way of giving a child a good education.  But is that really the problem or is it that the problems of poverty in the home follow the child to school and therein lies the challenge? 

Is getting resources to a school (and, in the extreme, a wrap-around services kind of school like the Harlem Children's Zone) really what is needed?  Is it even feasible (the last number I saw was HCZ spending something like $23k per child which is not sustainable)? 

What if you were able to convince the best teachers in any district to teach only at high-needs schools?  Is that going to do it?  Charlie's famous example is asking if you take the teachers at Eckstein and switch them with the teachers at Aki Kurose, will you see Eckstein results at Aki? 

(And before Chris Korsmo at LEV goes off here, it is NOT and has never been about whether children from poverty can learn.  They can.  It is about whether education is enough.)

If we are talking about a great school academically but say, without an elementary counselor (because we can't afford one) or if it's a great high school without college and career counseling (because we can't afford that), will great academics save the day for a child who lives in poverty?  I think a child in that situation is likely to do better academically than a child in a lesser school and it will, of course, have an impact on his/her life but is it enough to lift them up and away? 

Of course Gates is right that better educated people live better lives (easier lives?).  No one would dispute that and we want a well-educated workforce for our country. 

But can a good school alone overcome all the challenges of poverty in a child's life?  Should it?


someone said…
He's been pretty vocal this month on what he thinks are the needs of education - the other story that has some interesting quotes was his recent inteview with WSJ

Was the $5 Billion Worth It?
Anonymous said…
Well, maybe kids can't read because of all the poisonous debilitating GMO Monsanto frankenfoods Bill and his buddies promote?

(I wonder if Bill's kids eat organic...?)

Erin said…
Assuming that strong academics alone is all that's needed to close the achievement gap brings the privilege of the affluent into sharp focus. I absolutely believe that poverty is not an excuse for low quality schools. However assuming that children whose basic needs are not being met due to poverty can reach the same academic standards on the same timeline as more affluent children is a fallacy. To draw a parallel to healthcare - a person with asthma who lives in a triggering environment isn't going to stay out of the ER even with the best medicine or doctors. Someone who blaming the the patient's disease state on medical care shows a surprising level of tunnel vision.
Jan said…
Spot on, Erin. I think you are right. If you are trying to "compensate" for what a child may not be getting at home (food scarcity, housing insecurity, no or few books, little enrichment, inadequate supervision -- all the things that can sometimes go with poverty), it will not only take more money. It may well take more time -- whether you start early, go longer days/school years, or finish later (or maybe some combination of all three).

We need to stay away from invalid slogans and comparisons -- and just meet and empower kids where they are. It may take longer, and it may cost more, for them to get to the point where they can achieve what they are capable of.
Charlie Mas said…
People need to know how poverty inhibits academic growth so they can take effective steps to counter it.

What advantages do middle class and affluent students have? How can schools deliver some of those advantages to students living in poverty?

The advantages include exposure to a wider world. So the solution is take students on field trips. Lots of field trips.

The advantages include a stable study time and space. So the solution is to make an after-school supported homework and study opportunity.

The advantages include good nutrition and healthcare. So the solution includes breakfast and lunch and a health clinic at the school.

The advantages often include adults who express the high value they put on education. So the solution includes a strong academic culture within the school.

We can't do everything at the school, but if we consider the need and make an intentional effort to address it, we can go a long way to closing that opportunity gap.
Jack Whelan said…
We know you can have a good school in a poor neighborhood," said Gates. "So let's end the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education. I say it's more the other way around: Improving education is the best way to solve poverty."

The root issue is about scalability and sustainability. A good school in a poor neighborhood is a wonderful thing; the mistake is to think that there's a formula in it that can be systematically applied to produce similar results system- or district-wide.

This is the fundamental flaw in the post-NCLB reformers' mindset--to think that such successes can be engineered top down, system wide using technocratic methods. This almost always creates a disaster.

As in any profession, best practices, effective innovations, and successes of any kind need to be studied and shared, but they also need to be left to particular educational communities to adapt to their particular circumstances.

Sustainable solutions are grown; they are not engineered. Complex human cultural problems are never sustainably solved by technocratic methods. Bottom up methods do not insure success, but they have a better chance of it if the right people are in place to effect it.

A school is an evolving human drama, not a bloodless machine.The challenge is always at root a human one. Everything depends on the humans--the principal, the teachers, the kids, their parents--their strengths and weaknesses, their dreams and fears. There are no formulas to manage that, just people whose practical wisdom and good sense in the end is the only resource that can determine whether a difference is possible.

The question of scalability is moot. Systemwide problems ultimately are solved one school at a time with the right people in place to grow particular, sustainably effective learning communities.
Thank you Someone said; I had been meaning to post that one as well.
someone said…
I just can't help but wonder how a smart person, because he is intelligent, can be so blind to realities. How can the challenges of poverty NOT impact educational success? How can a kid who slept in a car the night before NOT have challenges that the kid who slept in a warm bed ddoesnt, even at the best of schools?
Some will always rise above their situation in life - but some can only rise up with a hand.

Maybe someday Mr. Gates will eschew data for real life. Then, and only then, might he help create real change.
Anonymous said…
I have kids who haven't slept the night before because 1) single-parent household and mom works nights and leaves the kids alone all night (they're either scared or out playing around) or 2) they live in a crappy neighborhood and are awakened by frequent gunfire, police action, or even home break-ins looking for drugs/money or 3) they've slept in a car/on the street/in a homeless shelter and dealt with all the noise and interruptions that brings. In my worst case scenario I had a little girl who was sleeping in class because she was trying to stay awake all night to keep mom's creepy boyfriend from molesting her and her little sister as they slept. While the last scenario can happen at any income level, the first three happen moreso in the lower-income areas. I'd love to know how I can expect a child who is sleep-deprived and lacking stability/safety at home to be completely focused on academics. Maslow's hierarchy of needs, anyone?

Bill Gates is completely divorced from the reality of lower and middle class life and quite honestly is full of #*it - making up with ideology what he doesn't understand or agree with or that doesn't fit his worldview. I'd love to see him do a day in the life of one of my students or their families.


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