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Poverty: The elephant in the room

Don't miss this excellent New York Times op-ed calling out the unaddressed issue in school achievement: poverty.

Helen F. Ladd, professor of public policy and economics at Duke and Edward B. Fiske, former education editor of the Times, skillfully lay out the case.

"Some honestly believe that schools are capable of offsetting the effects of poverty," they write of policy makers. "Others want to avoid the impression that they set lower expectations for some groups of students for fear that those expectations will be self-fulfilling. In both cases, simply wanting something to be true does not make it so."

They also point to another reason those policy makers deny the correlation between poverty and achievement – one they characterize as "nefarious" and the one we see at play in the state of Indiana.

" As we are now seeing, requiring all schools to meet the same high standards for all students, regardless of family background, will inevitably lead either to large numbers of failing schools or to a dramatic lowering of state standards," they write. "Both serve to discredit the public education system and lend support to arguments that the system is failing and needs fundamental change, like privatization."

None of the so-called reforms adopted in Indiana have sought to address poverty; they only strip resources from existing public schools and make it more difficult for educators to help students from poor families.

Ladd and Fiske call out the handy tool policy makers have so effectively used to advance their privatization agenda – George W. Bush's "soft bigotry of low expectations" line.

"(In) the United States over the past decade, it became fashionable among supporters of the no excuses' approach to school improvement to accuse anyone raising the poverty issue of letting schools off the hook … Such accusations may afford the illusion of a moral high ground, but they stand in the way of serious efforts to improve education and, for that matter, go a long way toward explaining why No Child Left Behind has not worked."

The article also points to promising efforts in some communities, while noting that top-performing Finland provides counseling and free food and health care to its students, while addressing developmental needs early.

The damage heaped on Indiana's schools in the last legislative session won't be easily undone, but next year's political debate needs to begin with a frank discussion of poverty. Since 2006, the percentage of students who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch has grown from 34 percent to a shameful 43 percent, one of the highest increases in the nation. It's not education reform we need, it's a war on poverty that will ultimately improve school performance.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at