Jul 5, 2011

Poverty Matters. But So Does School Reform. [Says A College Junior]

StudentsFirst Summer Associate George Hornedo is a junior at Cornell University where he is majoring in Government. He previously interned with the Half in Ten Anti-Poverty Campaign, a project aimed at cutting the poverty rate in half in a decade. He also is the founder and president of Cornell's Half In Ten chapter. George is from Indianapolis.

The lines are drawn in the education reform debate that unfairly and inaccurately box people into two camps: one that is trying to abate poverty and one that is trying to improve schools. Like most issues, though, things are not so black and white.

The education reform debate is about how best to create and foster an environment where children can learn and thrive - all children, including those from underprivileged backgrounds.

We can all agree that what we are doing now is not working. Our achievement gaps are too big, and our international test scores are middling at best and flat-out awful in some areas.

There is no question that teacher quality is a powerful and dominant force in improving student learning. So we have to do what's necessary to improve teaching, and I just don't see how that is an attack on anti-poverty efforts or an attack on teachers. After all, we're talking about paying effective teachers much more than they make now, ensuring they stay on the job in the face of layoffs and using robust evaluations to fairly assess which educators are succeeding. To divert attention from reforms based on teacher quality, critics point to poverty as the culprit. In doing so, these critics are dividing people into two competing camps, those who believe we must address poverty to improve education and those who believe we must improve education to alleviate poverty.

As Diane Ravitch recently wrote in the New York Times, "If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved. And that would be a miracle."

I hope Ms. Ravitch is wrong that solving poverty will take a miracle, and we must work to eradicate it as best we can. The reality is alleviating poverty will require fundamental and systemic changes in business, politics, economic systems, taxation, and more. Education is one important tool through which students can be helped, even amid poverty. In fact, a well-educated child can break the generational cycle of poverty.

Nations like India and China are producing more highly qualified workers than in the U.S. As President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union, "This is our Sputnik moment." The time to act is now and we must operate within political reality.

About 1 in 5 children, or 15 million kids, in the U.S. are living in poverty. This is a crisis that we need to address immediately. If, like me, you feel education is the best tool to bring people out of poverty, join the movement to put students first in education reform. If you believe hunger, health care, or a steady home and income can better alleviate poverty, then organize and mobilize around those issues.

As President John F. Kennedy said, we must "think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation." In the end, we're all working together to leave our nation and world better for future generations. We're all on the same team.

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