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Studying and discussing poverty and education

Randall F. Clemens

The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education is a coalition of scholars, educators, policymakers, and education advocates who support comprehensive reforms to improve education. They argue that social and economic disadvantage is often a barrier to learning. They target three policy areas: Early childhood education, comprehensive strategies, and school improvement. The list of prominent individuals associated with the project is long, including Pedro Noguera, Susan Neuman, Richard Rothstein, Mike Rose, and Randi Weingarten.

The coalition’s basic message—that happy, healthy children are more likely to learn—seems inarguable. And yet, one scholar has taken aim. 

In a recent article at Education Next, Paul Peterson critiques the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education in general and Helen Ladd’s presidential address at APPAM in particular. 

Peterson’s argument is largely methodological. In the introduction, he asks, “But is parental income the cause of a child’s success?” Assuming that’s the heart of the issue, he then uses evidence to systematically dismantle the causal link between income and achievement. His critique is inaccurate. For more on the differences between his argument and Ladd’s, see Valerie Strauss’s recent post

I read and respect Peterson’s work; however, in this instance, he misses the core of Broader, Bolder Approach’s mission. Even more, I’m not sure what he hopes to accomplish with statements like “the Broader, Bolder platform is narrow, niggling, naïve, and negligible.” Instead of a cool, dispassionate discussion of poverty and education reform, the reader gets biased rhetoric that leaves him or her no closer to understanding how to improve education.

Beyond Peterson’s language, the fundamental flaw with his argument is that he thinks and speaks in terms of variables and effects sizes. He simplifies complex processes to correlations among variables and then suggests policy solutions. He says, for instance: 

What has changed for the worse during the intervening period is not access to food and medical services for the poor but the increment in the percentage of children living in single-parent households…A better case can be made that the growing achievement gap is more the result of changing family structure than of inadequate medical services or preschool education.

First, Peterson ignores the fact that, as Linda Darling Hammond notes, of all industrialized countries, the United States has the highest percentage of children in poverty and provides the fewest social supports, e.g. housing, health-care, and child-care assistance. Second, he draws from a tradition beginning with E. Franklin Frazier in the 1930s and continuing with Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s and William Julius Wilson in the 1980s that ties the dissolution of the nuclear family to increased poverty among African Americans. Critiques of the argument— including a failure to account for racist public policies—are numerous. In addition, his argument is based on a faulty causal premise that two-parent households are always better than one-parent households. I can cite numerous examples of students who excel academically with one parent. I cannot say the same for students who do not have glasses and cannot read a textbook because their parents have no insurance. 

The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education and Peterson’s response—as well as a recent New York Times article and edited volume about the same topic (Whither Opportunity)—highlight the revived and growing national dialogue about the relationship between class and education. 

How does living in poverty influence the lives and educations of children? From cognitive delays caused by malnourishment to physiological barriers caused by lack of insurance, the answers are numerous, nuanced, and complex. By setting a comprehensive research agenda and open, active forums for discussion, we can better identify the far-reaching influences and consequences of poverty and, in doing so, create public policies that focus on immediate interventions and long-term systemic reforms.