Saturday, October 17, 2009

Democrats, Poverty, and Schools

Renewing the War on Poverty clearly needs to be one of President Barack Obama's main objectives during the coming years. As Barbara Ehrenreich and so many others are documenting, the deteriorated safety net is failing poor people during this recession, leaving them in dire straits.

So when Nick Kristof decided to pen a column for the New York Times urging the Democrats to again lead a fight against poverty, his heart was in the right place. But his aim was way off. On Thursday, he wrote that the Dems must focus on public schools, since they "constitute a far more potent weapon against poverty than welfare, food stamps or housing subsidies. " Huh?

Social science researchers across the nation are scratching their heads. Where in the world did Kristof get this one? For decades, solid analyses have demonstrated that while aspects of schooling can be important in improving student outcomes and alleviating the effects of poverty, the effects of factors schools cannot and do not control are much greater (for a place to start, read Doug Downey's work). Kristof emphasizes teachers and improving teacher quality by taking on the teachers' unions because he reads the data to mean that "research has underscored that what matters most in education - more than class size or spending or anything - is access to good teachers." Simply put, wrong. Access to good teachers is the most important factor affecting student achievement that is under schools' control (or as many put it, the most important school-level factor). What matters most in educational outcomes is the poverty felt by students' families. And to my knowledge, no study has ever rigorously compared the effectiveness of interventions based on cash transfers, housing subsidies, and teacher quality improvement-- what's needed to reach the kind of conclusion with which Kristof drives his argument. At the same time, a simple glance at the relative effects of programs like Moving to Opportunity, New Hope, etc which target poverty itself rather than how adults interact with children from poverty (the aim of improving teacher quality), should convince anyone than his target is misplaced.

Experts who think daily about how to end poverty could, and undoubtedly will, inform the next steps taken by Democrats. Dems should listen to them, and not to Kristof. With that approach they will undoubtedly begin not with teachers' unions but rather by connecting job seekers to work that pays, installing strategies to promote stable families, making quality housing affordable and safe, and of course guaranteeing access to good health care.

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