Poverty Is Still a Huge Issue for Students – Michelle Rhee Is Still Wrong

Michelle Rhee
Michelle Rhee – Credit: Education Week

Never really getting true reform, Michelle Rhee has stepped down from her role as the leading spokesperson for the corporation schools front organization Students First.

She held fast to an ideology – yes, ideology and not data – that denies the power of poverty in interrupting  poor students’ education. Instead, she focused on schools and teachers that serve those areas of high poverty. She placed blame liberally on teachers, insisting that with better teaching, poor students could succeed in spite of their poverty.

Every one of us who has taught in schools where high percentages of students were living in poverty know exceptional children who do achieve in spite of their poverty. We also know that they do so because of the support from many people around them beyond their immediate family. And it is by their inexplicable deeper instinct to know what help to seek and how to receive it.

Those students are the few anecdotal ones that Rhee uses as her proof. She ignores the chronic effects of poverty, not only on the majority of poor students, but the effects that it has on school systems. Communities with high poverty generally collect lower taxes that fund of the schools.

Also, schools with high poverty rates tend to wear down the best teachers and burn them out from the relentless pressures of poverty-related issues in their students. Those schools need the most experienced teachers. Yet, they have to rely on 1st year teachers who are earnest, but not yet ready to deal with what they encounter each day.

And this has been true of supposedly magical Teach for America teachers who came into those schools with great fanfare only to burn  out along with others traditionally trained.

Instead, the Waltons and other rich donors to “Students First” actually put students last behind their true design, which is to create a new market of corporation schools in a competitive education market place. Acknowledging that poverty has an impact on education would blunt their argument that public-owned schools need to be replaced with corporation-owned schools.

Published just today in Salon, Matt Bruenig leveled an especially blistering assessment of ideological attacks by Rhee and her allies masked as data-based. He concluded,

Despite their rhetoric, (poor) students are never actually placed first, but always second behind the distributive political preferences of the rich. Rhee and those who follow in her wake will drill on trying to squeeze out some marginal gains here and there through school reform, all while ignoring and minimizing powerful, tested solutions so as to make sure people don’t aim at child poverty itself. When you absolutely dominate the national discourse on how best to help poor children, as Rhee and her cohorts have for so long, such a posture is extremely shameful and damaging.

Rhee and her accomplices have carefully ignored any real data about the impact of poverty.

But it’s out there.

790 Students Tracked over 25 Years

The most impressive study, completed by Johns Hopkins University researchers over a quarter of a century, tracked 790 children many of whom were from poverty. The study followed each of them up into their twenties, carefully logging how successful they were as adults.

Two good reports about that study are at Hub, “Study: Children’s life trajectories largely determined by family they are born into” and NPR, “Rich Kid, Poor Kid: For 30 Years, Baltimore Study Tracked Who Gets Ahead”.

One piece of data from that long study of 790 children into adulthood flies completely in the face of “reform” assertions that anyone can overcome poverty:

Just 33 children — out of nearly 800 — moved from the low-income to high-income bracket. And a similarly small number born into low-income families had college degrees by the time they turned 28.

This is stunning considering how widely the mainstream press has stupidly repeated Right wing myths of upward mobility based on isolated individuals and anecdotes.

The study shows that poverty is far more complex and stubborn than Michelle Rhee’s dismissive statements would have us believe.

It is also a clear reminder that actual educators need to continue to confront the edu-hucksterism of ALEC and corporation charter schools.

Our children – especially from poverty – are counting on us to stand up for them FIRST. Investor profits don’t even belong in the equation.