Education is the long-term solution for fighting poverty

September 1, 2011

By RiShawn Biddle
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leaders in education to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Below is Biddle’s reply. Here are responses from Joel KleinRandi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch and others.

The vitriol over Steven Brill’s piece this week from Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, Alex Kotlowitz and other defenders of the status quo isn’t surprising. After all, they are especially good at ignoring reality – especially when it comes to the role of the nation’s education crisis in fostering poverty in a knowledge-based economy in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands. And they are particularly willing to ignore the reality that school reform – including making sure that all kids are taught by high-quality teachers – is the long-term solution for saving 1.2 million children a year from poverty and prison.

One of the biggest reasons why America’s economic malaise may last for decades is because high school dropouts among the nation’s long term unemployed are essentially shut out of the jobs market. Fifteen percent of American high school dropouts age 25 and older were unemployed on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s nearly double the rate for high school graduates with some amount of college education and three times higher than that of collegians with bachelor’s degrees. The problem is even worse with the new generation of dropouts who have fewer prospects for employment; nearly a third of dropouts age 16-to-24 are out of work on a not seasonally-adjusted basis. These young men and women can’t get into high-paying white-collar jobs, or even get into apprenticeships for blue-collar jobs such as welding, which can provide them with middle-class incomes.

It is simple: The better-educated a person is — and the more education they get, the more likely they will avoid economic and social despair. The average African-American with some form of education will earn at least $9,142 more in annual income than a high school dropout. The higher levels of income not only benefit people and their families. The rewards flow into the communities in which they live, with higher levels of home ownership, entrepreneurial activities, and civic activities that lead to high quality of life that benefits everyone.

High-quality education and good-to-great teachers can’t alleviate economic poverty for the short term. But it does help young men and women get the knowledge they need to avoid poverty in adulthood. Education, unlike food stamps, equals empowerment. For our kids, for whom schools are at the centers of their worlds and communities, high-quality teachers and strong principals can help foster shelters from the storms around them.

This isn’t fiction. I can easily point to the example of my grandma, the daughter of menial workers who were barely literate, who struggled with reading until she was nurtured by her fourth-grade teacher. Thanks to that teacher, my grandma became the first person in our family attend college – and paved the way for my mother and I to achieve things she could only dream about. There are also numerous studies, including the famed Coleman Report, which concluded that if teaching is of high-quality, schooling will be a bigger factor than socioeconomic background.

The problem is that while we have many high quality teachers working in our classrooms, we also have far too many who are not capable of helping any of our children – especially those from poor and minority households – succeed. Thanks to the practices Weingarten, Ravitch and their fellow-travelers defend – including near-lifetime employment granted by tenure, which can be easily granted within three years in all but a few states –just 2.1 percent of teachers are ever dismissed. This isn’t just the fault of teachers’ unions alone. Our nation’s schools of education also do an abysmal job of recruiting and training teaching candidates. Just 13 percent of 77 education schools surveyed three years ago by the National Council on Teacher Quality had high quality math instruction programs. And far too many school districts are doing a poor job of supporting good-to-great teachers, while letting their poor-performing colleagues stay on the job. But Weingarten, Ravitch, Kotlowitz and their supporters have opposed the very reforms that would address all of these issues – and thus, are willing to let poor kids remain mired in poverty.

This isn’t to say that Weingarten, Ravitch, and others don’t care about children. Not at all. What I am saying – and what Brill is alluding to – is the reality that they and other education traditionalists defend a failed, amoral vision of American public education that has condemned far too many young men and women, especially poor black, white and Latino children that look just like me, to poverty and prison.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

RiShawn, an economy where CPAs, computer engineers and other college grads are working as for security firms or TSA is not a desirable economic model. Yet this is precisely the type of economic opportunities that are available. Fewer felons means more people able to get a card to carry a weapon as a job requirement. Prison America?

I think we can do better. I am interested in hearing what our government plans to do regarding job creation/economic growth. Will the vitriol that was displayed during the budget crisis reemerge from our congressional leaders? Is this behavior by our politicians posturing and vying for power or indicative of public sentiment? If it is the latter then we truly have not corrected the issues surrounding the racial and religious divides that still exists in this country.

Business has been given the freedom to do as it wishes.
The business community along with Federal and State governments have lead us to a precipice of the abyss. A lack of moral and ethical conduct that neither rule of law or church has been able to right amongst our political and business leaders is at the core of the matter. To rely on a government and it’s recycled experts is simply to leave the nation’s problems in the hands of enablers. Clearly the real issue facing the United States is a “Crisis of Character”.

We are no longer a united country. Our divides are not only by race, class and geography but religion and philosophy. Under Vespasian the Roman empire was divided into Four regions each with an autonomous rule by the four emperors. At that time Rome’s problems were not all that different from ours today. Will this be the new model for old large Hegemons as they shed their final vestiges of democracy? It has been said history repeats it self.

If we are to become strong again as a nation we must learn as a people to put the interests of the nation ahead of our own. Empathy and compassion for those who are suffering because of the excess of the wealthy few are being ignored. The health of the nation and her People are intertwined with the health of the environment. The state of our economy is directly related to the state of our infrastructure which schools are a significant part. There is much work to be done and ten million plus in need of work. The solutions to our problems are simply a matter of vision and leadership.

But as in music the simplest things are always the hardest to do.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

Effective teaching is complicated and complex.

It goes beyond scholarship, content knowledge, and dedication. Most teachers WANT to be effective; they just don’t know how and don’t receive the support and the backing they need. Fifty per cent of all new teachers are gone within five years. In high poverty schools, this number increases to fifty percent every three years. Students aren’t the only ones dropping out of schools. Schools are a drop-out factory for teachers too. How do we leave no child behind without a stable pipeline of teaching capital?
Sad, we compensate chancellors, superintendents, CEOs, etc. with hundreds of thousands of dollars. They leave after two or three years with nothing accomplished and teachers take the blame. There is an absence of REAL leadership in our urban schools for which teachers and students suffer.
Most educators who are promoted to administrative positions were not necessarily exemplary teachers. Thus, they are challenged as instructional leaders because they weren’t necessarily effective in the classroom. It’s vicious cycle for which students and teacher are slapped down. It’s like blame assembly workers for building shoddy cars. The real challenge: how do we prepare the masses for life in a global economy. We just haven’t figured out how to do it to scale.

Posted by lyrichardson | Report as abusive

The author obviously did not read the article in the NYTimes yesterday on “Generation Limbo”, about the throngs of college grads who are now either out of work, going back to grad school because they can’t find a job, or working as bartenders, waitresses, starbucks baristas, paralegal, band leaders…jobs that do not require a college degree. The article cited Harvard English Majors, Dartmouth grads, IVY LEAGE graduates, probably $200k in debt, and can’t find work.

This whole “trust in education” amounts to nothing but blind faith. We have too many people who graduated from college going for the same backoffice jobs in IT, accounting, paralegal, etc. that are increasingly outsourced and offshore. So these college grads go work in jobs in retail, service, low skilled white collar jobs previously held by non-college grads; Where does that leave the high school grads? The only jobs they are now qualified for are farm jobs, low skilled blue collar jobs like restaurant kitchen, landscaping, truck driving…jobs that are now dominated by illegal immigrants, where Spanish is REQUIRED.

No Mr. Biddle, we’ve heard enough from people like you and Barack Obama, academics who do not live in the real world. We have a populace that is over-educated and under-skilled. We do not need any more people to go to community colleges and 4 year colleges to earn anymore useless degrees like English or History or Women’s studies. What we need is more vocational schools that train people for real skills like bookkeeping, technician, electrician, plumbing, welding, healthcare technician, cooking etc.

Further, we need to stop issuing H1-B and L1 visas to low skilled IT workers from India(often under the guise of “highly skilled”, “best and brightest” etc.). Make the employers train our college grads to do these jobs the same way they trained these Indian “college” grads, often graduated from dubious universities in India and by these Indian outsourcers’ own admission, have no real skills. We also need to stop illegal immigrants from taking jobs from our non-college grads by levying heavy fines on employers who hire illegals.

Last but not least, we need to stop fighting wars thousands of miles away, bring home our troops, seal off our border with Mexico, and stop paying welfare as well as all other social services from education to healthcare to illegal immigrants!

Posted by ThinkingPerson | Report as abusive

[…] Biddle: Education can fight poverty […]

Posted by Oil companies brace for Tropical Storm Lee – Top news – Financial news | Report as abusive

lyrichardson: Well said. Too often we the failures running school administrations: superintendents and principals growing their huge rear ends and the poor teachers trying to get the job done without any support, with no power to manage the classroom and no interest from the parents.

The US system of education is broken beyond repair. What is required is a brand new system. Get rid of superintendents, have only one principal, get rid of head of departments and hire only those teachers who are willing to get the job done.

Posted by JohnG-73645 | Report as abusive

ADDENDUM;I just finished reading comments on twitter regarding tropical storm Irene. Each and everyone of the comments posted by climate change naysayers (the majority of comments) demonstrated an inability to grasp rudimentary scientific principles such as oxygen respiration and photosynthesis. One commentator believes humans breath in the same amount of CO2 that they exhale therefore, CO2can’t be a contributing hot house gas. Their ability to form cognitive sentences and use basic grammar in the process was absent. Clearly reading comprehension and critical thinking is something many American People have not attained from their educational experience.

Rishawn, our education system has failed these people and they probably have jobs. If these individuals take the time to post comments on twitter, do they also make time to vote or go to town hall meetings held by elected officials? There is more at stake hear than a future with to many imprisoned young people.

I am a former correctional officer who spent 13 years working in institutions and escorting inmates to court on a regular basis. I can tell you first hand you are correct about a failed educational system leading to incarceration. The educational infrastructure for juveniles in our state prison systems is far worse than what is available to the public. Yet judges handily commit youths to juvenile detention (gangsta college). I personally view our criminal justice system as institutionalized racism and our prisons as such nothing more than political gulags for all the undesirables of society (mentally ill, minorities, disabled and political dissidents).

All of our institutions (public and private schools, legislatures, criminal justice, healthcare, financial, etc…) have and are failing us. I would further submit education is at the core. I think it is easy to see that as long as elected representatives are pandering to a confused and misinformed constituency there is little hope for constructive and positive change. A better understanding of the issues facing our failed institutions by the public in crucial for consensus to be formed. Only then can positive and effective change take place.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

Education MIGHT bring about a different attitude about government and help to shrink it and reduce the corruption that has become part and parcel with our modern version of democracy in America but as for poverty – as long as illegal immigration is condoned and supported, as it is now by Obama and has been by others like Bush and the entire State of Texas then you can be sure the words of Jesus will remain true : “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.”

Posted by Bagwa | Report as abusive