Education is the long-term solution for fighting poverty
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 Klein, Randi 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.