I read a load of barbs hurled at new Secretary for Education, Betsy DeVos. Much of it was labeled at her wealthy background and the fact that neither she nor her kids had spent time in the public education system to have a clue about the ‘real world’. Some of it related to her like of charter schools. The funny thing is you don’t need to dig far to work out the problems are decades old. While it is easy to point fingers at DeVos, we only need look at a survey taken by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the US back in January of 1993 to see successive administrations have dropped the ball. Poverty, alcoholism, student apathy and absenteeism were cited as big problems in secondary public schools. Lack of a parent was also high on the agenda.
Broken homes and poverty seem to be a big issue. The report said, “Besides lack of parent involvement, the school problems viewed as serious by at least 10 percent of public school teachers included student apathy, poverty, student absenteeism, student disrespect for teachers, parental alcoholism and/or drug abuse, and student tardiness. Behaviors and attitudes of students were more likely to be seen as problematic by teachers at the secondary level than by teachers at the elementary level. Parent alcoholism, on the other hand, was described as “serious” as often by elementary teachers as by secondary teachers and poverty was described as “serious” more often by elementary teachers. “
Scrolling forward to 2014, approximately 20 percent of school-age children were in families living in poverty. The percentage of school-age children living in poverty ranged across the United States from 12 percent in Maryland to 29 percent in Mississippi. The map below shows the aggressive skew between the north and south with regards to relative poverty according to NCES
When looking at ethnicity, the skew was also telling. The chart below highlights the change in poverty levels among various races/ethnicities between 2009 and 2014. GFC made a dent in almost every category. In 2014, approximately 15.3 million, or 21 percent, of all children under the age of 18 were in families living in poverty; this population includes the 10.7 million school-age 5- to 17-year-olds and 4.6 million children under age 5 living in poverty.
Going another level we see that broken households seem to be relatively correlated. NCES highlights the extent of single parent households. You’ll notice that the totals exceed 100% in certain categories but this is down to double counting.
Switching gears to free lunches at school for poverty stricken students. The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) under the National School Lunch Program provides a proxy measure for the concentration of low-income students within a school. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those from families with incomes that are between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals. In this indicator, public schools (including both traditional and charter) are divided into categories by FRPL eligibility. High-poverty schools are defined as public schools where more than 75.0 percent of the students are eligible for FRPL, and mid-high poverty schools are those schools where 50.1 to 75.0 percent of the students are eligible for FRPL. Low-poverty schools are defined as public schools where 25.0 percent or less of the students are eligible for FRPL, and mid-low poverty schools are those schools where 25.1 to 50.0 percent of the students are eligible for FRPL. In school year 2012–13, some 21 percent of public school students attended low-poverty schools, and 24 percent of public school students attended high-poverty schools.
The US Dept of Education has celebrated higher graduation rates as an achievement but according to the American Psychological Association, “poor (bottom 20 percent of all family incomes) students were five times more likely to drop out of high school than high-income (top 20 percent of all family incomes) students…Family poverty is associated with a number of adverse conditions — high mobility and homelessness; hunger and food insecurity; parents who are in jail or absent; domestic violence; drug abuse and other problems — known as “toxic stressors” because they are severe, sustained and not buffered by supportive relationships…Community poverty also matters. Some neighborhoods, particularly those with high concentrations of African-Americans, are communities of concentrated disadvantage with extremely high levels of joblessness, family instability, poor health, substance abuse, poverty, welfare dependency and crime”
The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, collects test results from 65 countries for its rankings, which come out every three years. The latest results, from 2012, showed:
“In mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago,” reports Education Week. “In science, 22 education systems scored above the U.S. average, up from 18 in 2009.”
In reading, 19 other locales scored higher than U.S. students — a jump from nine in 2009, when the last assessment was performed.”
So before people rip into DeVos they might do well to analyze the long term economic related problems that feed into education. Poverty has never been as high in America with almost 50 million people on food stamps. In 2000 that number was around 17mn. It is not a question of calling one race dumber than another. Deteriorating economics, the breakdown of families and stable support networks are preventing better outcomes.
The charter school criticisms of DeVos are also out of place. Indeed former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who served under Obama faced the following criticism which I don’t see raised by DeVos haters,
“The agency’s inspector general issued a scathing report in 2012 that found deficiencies in how the department handled federal grants to charter schools between 2008 and 2011″ – in other words, during Duncan’s watch.
A recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) uncovered over $200 million in “alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” committed by charter schools around the country.because much of the fraud “will go undetected because the federal government, the states, and local charter authorizers lack the oversight necessary to detect the fraud.”
With such a dreadful trajectory in scholastic achievement in part due to decades of poorly planned education policy not to mention growing poverty and economic hardship is it any wonder. Before questioning DeVos and her intentions, perhaps when looking at these so called deeply educated byproducts of the public sector that know better than her, they might look at what hasn’t been achieved in so long. It most certainly won’t be to chuck more money at the problem. One has to wonder that the plight of schools in impoverished areas is to secure high quality teachers willing to forgo their safety and try to reverse long standing trends that were highlighted by the NCES surveys in 1993.
Throwing stones at DeVos because of her wealth is hardly the way forward. Economic revival will be a vital tenet of that recovery but at the same time, the highly indebted world pushing on a string with multiple asset bubbles hardly sets the scene for a quick fix. Is it any wonder Trump was voted in – decades of negligence by former administrations who will now reap the risks of ill-thought out policy which protected the establishment at the expense of the plebs.