Summary: Intervention in poverty via the schoolhouse continues to be a viable avenue, but what is the state of funding and political will?
A founding myth of America, perhaps THE founding myth, is that native ability and a willingness to work hard and persevere will open gates to personal abundance within the system of laws and economic opportunity of the United States. First corollary to the same myth is that unfettered, lightly regulated commerce will yield a vibrant society in which all will prosper.
The truth secured to the underbelly of the myth is that prior privilege abides, and whites and accumulated wealth perpetuate; the poor and citizens of color are excluded from the spoils by institutional rigidities and other illness in the fabric.
In fact, much of the story of America is of a struggle with political and economic suppression, first that by the English crown, then of the various disenfranchisements of women, African Americans and other people of color, of labor, of the poor, of the LBGTQ.
In the current reality, income inequality and poverty deepens, with people of color disproportionately trapped in a self-fulfilling cycle dimly understood in halls of power and privilege, and often not a priority.
Among the myths of a putative upwardly mobile society is that of education as an escalator, a people mover out of poverty into a full partaking of the nation’s benefits. I have seen it as a reality in the immigrant students that passed through my counseling office on their way to higher education, but other locales tell a different story, of rural and small town communities of despair and stagnation in the lives of urban youth.
If the myth once had force, it has less traction in the current era.
If education is to be a more vibrant escalator, how is this to happen?
Counter intuitively, promising avenues have proliferated in schools across the country despite national inertia in test scores, and the failure of political will to muster funding to the scale needed. To wit —
The most obvious and non-controversial research based intervention provides quality preschool instruction to all three and four year olds, regardless of ability to pay. Without the earlier stimulation, children of poverty enter kindergarten in public schools already substantially behind their better off brothers and sisters, and show deficits too often never made up.
Once kids reach school age, poor attendance, behavior problems, failing grades, and skill deficits consign students to academic dead ends. Programs that early and consistently intervene with support systems for such students have increased the graduation rate, for example, in the Spokane School District.
Belief that superficially poor students may have the capacity for higher level work (such as Advanced Placement) if pushed to it and broadly supported in their academic transition commonly is a theme in school efforts that show promise; the research has long shown that high expectations are one element of effective intervention.
The support needs to extend throughout the educational career of the student of color and/or poverty. Despite increased college entry by these groups, their graduation rate from college has languished, except in colleges that have taken on the mission, created program and hired people to support higher risk students all the way to graduation.
The goal would be to take these still isolated but dependable techniques truly to scale, along with related interventions, to advance profoundly and permanently the vast population of kids limited by poverty and the continuing reality of institutional racism.
To scale. Ay, there’s the rub, because the conversation now turns to money. Lots of it but really, how much? While souls with perspective enough and bravado to enter this fray are few and far between in my reading, David Kirp, a professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, appears to have thrown caution to the winds, but by standing on solid ground.
According to Kirp, in 2013 the state of California put into law the Local Control Funding Formula, which channels extra educational dollars to school districts based on their high risk populations — the poor, the English as Second Language, and the foster kid. Local districts have discretion how the money is spent.
Early returns are in. Under the Local Control Funding Formula in California, “For every additional $1,000 per student that a school district received, 6.1% more students from poor families earned a high school diploma…..The added $1,000 shrank the high school math achievement gap between poor and non-poor students by 37%,” according to Kirp. A similar study he cites found that increased funding led to 10% increases in graduation rates for poor students and a 10% rise in their lifetime earnings.
A separate study extrapolated comparable findings to predict that a 22 percent increase in per-pupil spending for at risk kids may be large enough to eliminate the education gap between children from low-income and non-poor families.
To spend as these California figures imply in order to elevate at risk students amounts to political upheaval. Yet the Washington State Legislature, under court order to “fully fund” education in the state and relieve the burden on local educational levies, managed to increase the state educational budget on roughly that same order of magnitude (it looks to me) or greater, admittedly under sanction by the Washington State Supreme Court. The scale of increase in the Washington state school budget elevates a 22 percent increase in funding for at risk students into the realm of the feasible as well as into the public discussion, in the face of understandably skeptical opinion.
Despite the Pollyannaish overtones, it encourages me that both program (as in California) and research (as in the David Kirp report) have scaled to the macro level of large populations and substantial sums of money in order to address educational inequalities.
The companion good news is that the political process already has progressed to this point in California, in recent history a harbinger of things to come elsewhere.