A few months ago the Southern Education Foundation released a report detailing the demographics of public school enrollment in the United States. The single most important finding in the report? Nearly half of all public school students in the nation and a majority in Western and Southern states are low-income and qualify for free and reduced lunch — and an increasing percentage of those are students of color. Unfortunately, a much-needed debate about the challenges presented by these demographic realities, especially for the nation's schools, has yet to occur. In fact, the dominant narrative around public education in the U.S. would have it that entrenched poverty has little or no impact on educational achievement. We all recognize that teacher effectiveness and high expectations for students are important elements in student achievement. But can we really ignore the implications of being poor for school readiness and success?
Poverty is really a proxy for a range of conditions and circumstances that shape the daily lives of students. A student who is hungry or cannot see or hear adequately is likely to have problems concentrating in class. We also know that children from low-income families have much higher rates of untreated dental conditions and endure more acute illnesses that lead to chronic absenteeism and lost instructional time. If education reform policies are insensitive to these realities, there is little reason to expect that learning outcomes for low-income children will improve.
In spite of our best efforts, income-related gaps in student achievement in the U.S. persist, from grade school all the way through college. Indeed, I am not at all confident that we have figured out how to break the link between family income level and academic success. And so I would ask: Are we sure that our current reform agenda, with its emphasis on standards, competition, and accountability, is adequate to the challenge of helping kids, especially the most vulnerable, learn and develop in ways that prepare them for the world of work or other postsecondary opportunities? What more should we be doing, and what else might we consider doing, to increase the odds that all kids, regardless of race, ethnicity, or family income, can take full advantage of all this country has to offer?
The last two decades of U.S. education policy largely have been focused on promoting minimum competency standards for low-income students, using inexpensive standardized assessments to learn whether the standards are working, and holding adults accountable if they are not. To be sure, the focus on raising outcomes for low-income and low-achieving students is laudable. But despite these efforts, very little has changed in terms of the practice of teaching and learning in our schools — even our best schools. I believe we will not see the deeper learning outcomes stipulated by the new Common Core standards unless and until the practice of teaching becomes the overriding focus of our education policy. Much more important than figuring out which teachers move test scores at the margin is the urgent need to attract committed adults to the profession of teaching, educate them well, and help them develop their practice once on the job. That's how it works in knowledge-dependent professions like education, where the use of data, information, and the exercise of judgment and personal responsibility are highly correlated with success.
Given the role of philanthropy in the design and implementation of the current education reform agenda, I would love to see the philanthropic community take a step back and reflect on its assumptions. Generally speaking, we have been optimistic about the Common Core, the premise of which is that uniform standards will produce more high school graduates who are ready for college. But while a lot of work has been done in recent years to generate new courses and lesson plans that align with the standards, in the end what really matters is how well students actually do in their courses. And that will depend not only on their knowledge of the content but also on things like motivation, engagement, discipline, and persistence. Indeed, we need to undertake a serious effort focused on how best to assess and help students acquire the kinds of intra- and inter-personal skills that have been shown to make a huge difference in the success of low-income children.
Competition and choice have been equally emphasized in philanthropic circles. Private investment in charter schools, for instance, now totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars. While the best and most imaginative of these schools have shown good results, on average the data from the rest are not so compelling. Worse, "school choice" has not yet led to broader, oft-promised systemic changes in our school systems. While a little inefficiency may be worth it if system change occurs eventually, we need to look much more closely at what is happening in so-called traditional schools as public resources are diverted to charters. And we need much better data on student enrollment, retention, mobility, and completion in charters to ensure that the most disadvantaged and most difficult to educate aren't simply being dispatched to second-class alternatives. The bottom line? We do not need two public school systems in the United States. We need one well-resourced, well-functioning system that produces positive outcomes for all kids.
So here are a few opportunities for philanthropic leaders to consider. First, let's participate in a much-needed dialogue about the critical role public education plays in our democracy. For decades we have relied on public schools to teach our children an appreciation of American culture and history as well as an understanding of how our democracy and economy work. These foundational civic objectives may be at risk in today's reform environment, where the concepts of free markets and consumer choice dominate. Second, let's support a much-needed effort to rethink and redesign our approach to accountability. School systems where there is little or no trust between teachers and administrators spend an enormous amount of energy and resources on compliance instead of continuous improvement. And third, if we are to make a difference for the children who depend most on public education to thrive, we need to support a long-overdue effort to create new models of learning. Let's start with the premise that time is one of the most important variables in the public education enterprise and explore the possibilities associated with using it in innovative ways. Let's also open ourselves to the reality that kids are not widgets and consider ways of personalizing the learning experience.
If we stimulate and support work on all three of these fronts, we may begin to see an education improvement agenda that makes a significant difference for poor students. Given the changing demographics of public school enrollment, that's an agenda we need.
Kent McGuire is president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation. Before joining SEF, he served as dean of the College of Education at Temple University, as senior vice president at MDRC, as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, and as an education program officer and director at the Pew Charitable Trusts and Lilly Endowment.