Schools confront poverty, why don’t education policies?

In a recent interview, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reflected on his prior tenure as Chicago schools superintendent:

I come from Chicago where 85 percent of our students live below the poverty line. If children can’t see the blackboard, they’re going to have a hard time learning so we have to get them eyeglasses. We used to get literally tens of thousands of kids eyeglasses every year. If children aren’t fed and are hungry, they’re going to have a hard time concentrating, so we fed tens of thousands of kids three meals a day. We had a couple of thousand kids we were particularly worried about so very quietly we would send them home Friday afternoons with a backpack full of food because we worried about them not eating over the weekend.

Should schools have to do that? No, in a perfect world they wouldn’t have to do that. But we have to deal with reality and whether it’s eyeglasses, food, or physical and emotional safety, we have to address all of those things. And schools can’t do it alone. Non-profits, faith-based institutions — all of us have to work together.

Then asked “All else equal, should we expect more of schools?,” Duncan replied, “We should expect more of society.”

Urging schools to solve vision, nutrition or physical and emotional safety problems by working with “non-profits” and “faith-based institutions” is silly. Voluntary organizations can perform isolated acts of charity, but only government can narrow the vast social inequalities that bring many children to school unprepared to learn.

The Obama Administration’s education program expects nothing of society, and everything from schools. It proposed a “Blueprint” for re-authorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would hold schools accountable for getting all children “college and career ready” by 2020, whether they can see the blackboard, come to school hungry, or eat on the weekend. And while the “Race to the Top” competition (with funds from federal stimulus appropriations) awarded points to states for the administration’s favored school reforms, states got no points for providing eyeglasses or food, or for improving emotional and physical safety by, for example, adopting suburban zoning reforms that would permit family moves from ghettos to more stable neighborhoods.

The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education campaign convened by the Economic Policy Institute describes many practical programs that could ameliorate hardships that impede children’s ability to flourish in school. Duncan’s interview shows the administration is not oblivious to this need but simply chooses to ignore it.


  • George Peternel

    I’m puzzled why Arne Duncan gives lip service about raising societal expectations but little policy support for the same. His fragmented and short-sighted approach to improving educational outcomes is just another dead weight on the already struggling Obama administration. I did not expect better from Duncan, since his efforts in Chicago were more “pot-stirring” than “system changing.” But I had hoped better from President Obama and his Bush-like educational policies have been more than disappointing.

    We have the capability of having creating unbelievable learning outcomes with America’s children, the kind that could cause the rest of the world to take notice and follow our lead, but we don’t seem to have the will to do so. Why not? For starters, we have leaders with low expectations. Race to the Top is little more than false hype. We have some great schools in this country, and communities and schools that do work together so that children of poverty can be high achievers. Replicate what they are doing.