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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bill Gates Knows Best

According to the Huffington Post, Bill Gates told the National Urban League in Boston on Thursday that there is a myth out there that says poverty must be eliminated before education can be reformed.

I don't know about you, but not once in my career have I ever heard anyone claim that poverty must be eliminated before education can be reformed. I would love to know who told Bill Gates that.

My guess, however, would be that he's never heard anyone say it either.

Instead, I suspect Gates is using this talking point as a means of attacking anti-corporate reform advocates for attempting to explain the devastating effects of poverty on student achievement, and particularly on standardized test scores, which are being inappropriately used to judge the quality of teaching in learning public schools across the country.

In issuing this statement, Gates demonstrates an unwillingness to really listen to those on the other side of the debate, a significant misunderstanding of their point of view, or a myopic commitment to his version of reform at the expense of engaging other important stakeholders in the conversation.

Poverty is more than a mere variable to be toyed with in an effort to institute corporate reform on public schools. It is often an utterly incapacitating condition accompanied by violence, chronic disease and illness, addiction, abuse, and despair. As John Kuhn intimated this past weekend at the Save Our School Conference, a well-crafted algebra lesson is unlikely to have any great effect on these conditions.

While I agree with Bill Gates that excellent education should be part of the solution to poverty, schools alone cannot make up for poverty's effects on standardized test scores.

Education can and should be improved. But the notion that schools alone can close the achievement gap as a means of battling social inequality, a myth perpetuated by educational opportunists like Michelle Rhee, is utter nonsense.

2 comments:

  1. I have said it. If the inputs (students) remain stifled by poverty, no reform will have much of a chance of doing anything for them.

    Yes, until poverty is addressed we will remain mired with the symptoms it produces, like poor school performance.

    This is NOT to say that other issues around education couldn't be addressed too, like funding, high-stakes testing, teacher autonomy and the rest. But those alone can't do much, and go hand in hand with anti-poverty measures.

    So, I have said it, as did MLK:

    “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

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  2. Very well said James: "Poverty is more than a mere variable to be toyed with in an effort to institute corporate reform on public schools. It is often an utterly incapacitating condition accompanied by violence, chronic disease and illness, addiction, abuse, and despair."

    It's not simply poverty, per se, that affects student performance, but the violence, lack of adult supervision, gangs, and certain negative cultural attitudes in the nation's inner city schools that perpetuate these performance problems.

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