Sent to the New York Times, Feb 15, 2009
Does improving education reduce poverty or does reducing poverty
Nicholas Kristoff thinks that education is the key to reducing
poverty and that our schools are "Our greatest national shame" (Feb
15). There is, however, strong evidence that poverty is the major
cause of low academic achievement.
US schools with fewer than 25% of children in poverty outscore all
countries in the world in Math and Science (Gerald Bracey, Huffington
Post, July 22, 2007). US children only fall below the international
average when 75% of more of the students in a school are children of
poverty. Studies also show that poor diet and lack of reading material
seriously affect academic performance.
There is room for improvement in education, but when all our children
have the advantages that children from high-income families have, our
schools will be considered the best in the world.
Susan Ohanian puts it this way: Instead of No Child Left Behind, how
about No Child Left Unfed?
The New York Times, February 15, 2009
Our Greatest National Shame
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
So maybe I was wrong. I used to consider health care our greatest
national shame, considering that we spend twice as much on medical
care as many European nations, yet American children are twice as
likely to die before the age of 5 as Czech children — and American
women are 11 times as likely to die in childbirth as Irish women.
Yet I’m coming to think that our No. 1 priority actually must be
education. That makes the new fiscal stimulus package a landmark, for
it takes a few wobbly steps toward reform and allocates more than $100
billion toward education.
That’s a hefty sum — by comparison, the Education Department’s
entire discretionary budget for the year was $59 billion — and it
will save America’s schools from the catastrophe that they were
facing. A University of Washington study had calculated that the
recession would lead to cuts of 574,000 school jobs without a
“We dodged a bullet the size of a freight train,” notes Amy
Wilkins of the Education Trust, an advocacy group in Washington.
So for those who oppose education spending in the stimulus, a
question: Do you really believe that slashing half a million teaching
jobs would be fine for the economy, for our children and for our
Education Secretary Arne Duncan describes the stimulus as a
“staggering opportunity,” the kind that comes once in a lifetime.
He argues: “We have to educate our way to a better economy, that’s
the only way long term to get there.”
That’s exactly right, and it’s partly why I shifted my views of
the relative importance of education and health. One of last year’s
smartest books was “The Race Between Education and Technology,” by
Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, both Harvard professors. They
offer a wealth of evidence to argue that America became the world’s
leading nation largely because of its emphasis on mass education at a
time when other countries educated only elites (often, only male
They show that America’s educational edge created prosperity and
equality alike — but that this edge was eclipsed in about the 1970s,
and since then one country after another has surpassed us in
Perhaps we should have fought the “war on poverty” with schools
— or, as we’ll see in a moment, with teachers.
Some education programs have done remarkably well in overcoming the
pathologies of poverty. Children who went through the Perry Preschool
program in Michigan, for example, were 25 percent less likely to drop
out of high school years later than their peers in a control group,
and committed half as many violent felonies. They were one-third less
likely to become teenage parents or addicts, and half as likely to get
Likewise, the KIPP program, the subject of a fine book by Jay
Mathews, has attracted rave reviews for schools that turn low-income
students’ lives around.
There are legitimate questions about whether such programs are
scalable and would succeed if introduced more broadly. But we do know
that the existing national school system is broken, and that we’re
not trying hard enough to fix it.
“We have a good sense from the data where there are big
opportunities,” notes Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth
College who studies education.
The hardest nut to crack is high schools — we don’t have a strong
sense yet how to rescue them. But there’s a real excitement at what
we are learning about K-8 education.
First, good teachers matter more than anything; they are
astonishingly important. It turns out that having a great teacher is
far more important than being in a small class, or going to a good
school with a mediocre teacher. A Los Angeles study suggested that
four consecutive years of having a teacher from the top 25 percent of
the pool would erase the black-white testing gap.
Second, our methods to screen potential teachers, or determine which
ones are good, don’t work. The latest Department of Education study,
published this month, showed again that there is no correlation
between teacher certification and teacher effectiveness. Particularly
in lower grades, it also doesn’t seem to matter if a teacher has a
graduate degree or went to a better college or had higher SATs.
The implication is that throwing money at a broken system won’t fix
it, but that resources are necessary as part of a package that
involves scrapping certification, measuring better through testing
which teachers are effective, and then paying them significantly more
— with special bonuses to those who teach in “bad” schools.
One of the greatest injustices is that America’s best teachers
overwhelmingly teach America’s most privileged students. In
contrast, the most disadvantaged students invariably get the least
effective teachers, year after year — until they drop out.
This stimulus package offers a new hope that we may begin to reform
our greatest national shame, education.