December 31, 2021

Steve Nelson: Pull Those Damn Bootstraps!

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Steve Nelson substacks at First Do No Harm, where he questions the continued insistence that education can eradicate poverty.

Decades of education reform, billions in “think tank” research and ceaseless examination of test scores, curricula and educational practice have failed to make a discernible dent in so-called “achievement gaps” or debilitating poverty.

Why might this be so?  It is because the relationship between education and poverty is broadly misunderstood, whether willfully or maliciously.

I could cite endless examples of the enthusiastic claims that the road to the cure for poverty runs through education.  If only we could equalize education outcomes, then economic justice would follow close behind!   Thus we have declared boldly that we will Leave No Child Behind!  We will legislate that Every Student Succeeds!  We will have a Common Core and identify Uncommon Schools!

It is all nonsense, because the conventional –  nearly universally accepted – wisdom is 180 degrees wrong.  Education has not, will not, cannot, ameliorate poverty.  Ameliorating poverty is the only way to equalize educational attainment.   As I have quipped for many years, testing, accountability, standards and metrics are all equivalent to expecting Hansel and Gretel to fatten up by incessantly weighing them.

I don’t suggest that educational practice is irrelevant.  I could make – have made (see book link below) – the case that progressive pedagogy produces more profound and durable learning, but even that distinction is relatively unimportant in light of the pernicious effects of poverty.   At every level of education, variable outcomes track precisely with wealth.   SAT scores can be most accurately predicted by family wealth.  Town by town analyses of test scores follow wealth.   Graduation rates from kindergarten to graduate school are largely determined by wealth.

I have often cited, with undiminished anger, the glib response of hedge fund multi-millionaire Whitney Tilson when he was challenged about the abusive, “tough love” discipline in charter schools he championed.  “Because they need it!” he answered;  “they” meaning poor brown and Black children, in stark contrast to his own very white daughters who attended a very white, very expensive Manhattan private girls school where any similarly “tough love” treatment of students would bring an immediate swarm of entitled parents to the Headmistress’s office to remind her who was paying her salary.

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