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Poverty is a circumstance, not an excuse

September 22, 2015 | Filed in HFM Superintendent Blog

Originally published as “Realign public school system to serve poor students, too” in Albany Times Union, Sept. 14, 2015

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, once promised $100 million to the City of Newark, NJ, to help improve their public education system. His only stipulation was that another $100 million in matching funds be raised locally so that Newark would have plenty of money to use for public school reform. The goal was met and over the course of five years beginning in 2010, Newark had an additional $200 million to work with.

Unfortunately, Mr. Zuckerberg learned what the Gates Foundation had already discovered. No amount of private or public sector money is going to change the trajectory of public education. Take time to read Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize. It does a wonderful job describing how $200 million was wasted in Newark, NJ.

What Zuckerberg and the Gates Foundation will not say aloud is that traditional public education is no longer relevant for people in poverty. Wherever the public school system fails utterly in cities like Newark—or Buffalo, Rochester, and Binghamton in New York State—the apologists and the main benefactors of this system quickly point out that it’s all because of poverty.

We need to remember the history of our own field. Progressive education developed as a means to lift children out of poverty. John Dewey and many other progressive educators of the early 20th century helped create the American educational system as a practical pathway out of poverty. By all accounts, over the decades, they were wildly successful. Our public schools can be credited with the creation of America’s middle class.

For today’s education “leaders,” the use of poverty as an excuse for school failure is simply absurd. We disproved that assertion for generations of students throughout most of the 20th century. Suddenly today, schools can’t succeed because of poverty. I reject that argument.

What has changed is that since the 1960s, the nature of poverty has changed. Our economy has evolved to where a person can no longer overcome educational deprivation by sheer gumption and grit to make their way successfully. Today’s economy requires young people to enter the workforce with a level of education and training. Our public education system that successfully addressed the needs of people in poverty 100 years ago has not kept up with the world to offer today’s impoverished students the ticket out that it once did.

Ironically today, public schooling in most distressed areas almost guarantees that you will stay in poverty. The data speaks for itself. Just look at graduation and dropout rates in Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton, or for that matter, Newark. The paradigm has flipped. Public education has become the guarantor of remaining in the middle class, if you are lucky enough to be in a middle class community.

Again, look at the data. In which communities are students most successful in public schools? In which communities do public school districts boast more than a 90 percent rate for graduation and college attendance?

Money is not the key here; it is structure. Educators in impoverished areas need flexibility to realign the public education structure to address the specific needs of their communities today. Educational equity doesn’t mean every school has to be cut from the same pattern. It means that every student gets equal opportunities to succeed through innovative programs and approaches, no matter the economic starting point of their community or family.

We need our state legislature and governor to enable that flexibility for impoverished areas. We need educators to be empowered to find ways to address the needs of poverty as it exists in the 21st century, not the 19th century.

Unfortunately, the same children who benefit from the old structure live in the middle class and wealthy communities that can afford it. We need those influential and powerful communities to embrace a wider view and allow us to realign the system to serve the needs of everyone, including today’s impoverished children.


Dr. Patrick Michel is District Superintendent of Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES in Johnstown , NY.

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