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The link between inequality and poverty in our schools

Posted by Karen Traeger on Apr 14 2015
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By:  Mary von Euler

Much as I admire Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, I think he received poor advice in calling standardized testing a civil rights issue, as reported in the front page of The Washington Post. I understand where he’s coming from: shame states into doing something about the poor education received by poor, minority children.

Fortunately, Lyndsey Layton, the author of the Post article, contacted Gary Orfield, the nation’s leading researcher on the education of poor and minority children.  Orfield, who founded and for many years directed Harvard’s Center for Civil Rights and now serves as co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, told the reporter that the standardized testing movement is harming “exactly the people the civil rights groups want to help: teachers and students in high-poverty schools.” He noted that the focus on math and reading has squeezed out science, social studies and the arts from high-poverty schools, adding the basic truth that tests don’t address the social problems that poor children bring to school. “They don’t fix the inequality of a public education system funded primary by real estate taxes, where schools in wealthy communities are well equipped and attract the strongest teachers, while high-poverty schools often have fewer resources and weaker teachers.” Most important, Orfield noted, “The idea that you can just ignore the conditions that create inequality in schools and just put more and more pressure on schools and if that doesn’t work, add more sanctions, makes no sense -- as if it’s just a matter of will for the students and teachers in these schools of concentrated poverty.”

For decades Gary Orfield has documented the relationship of racially and economically segregated housing and segregated high-poverty schools. Similarly, others have pointed to one aspect of poverty: homelessness – something that should be unthinkable in the world’s richest country. How absurd to judge student achievement when some children are homeless, attending different schools during the year, with no continuous instruction. And to judge a teacher, where students in the classroom can change throughout the year, by before-and-after tests is not just unfair, it’s crazy.

Liberal advocates and politicians are talking about inequality these days, which is welcome. But few mention the word “poverty” and how we can begin to address it. It’s about time we and they did.



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