Margaret Spellings’ glaring omission

Margaret Spellings’ glaring omission

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UNC system President Margaret Spellings

One of the reasons I love working on education policy is that academic research on education is ever-evolving, and chock-full of hotly-debated issues. But not all aspects of education policy remain up for debate. For example, education researchers of all stripes agree on a simple fact: child poverty is the single greatest barrier to academic achievement. Researchers and policymakers certainly disagree vigorously on how best to address this barrier, but no serious person would deny that poverty is the greatest barrier to widespread academic success.

The evidence of poverty’s negative impact on education is overwhelming. More than 50 years ago, the landmark Coleman Report offered this summary:

Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.”

A mountain of evidence since that time has confirmed those results. On national tests, more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates. Since the 1940s, the achievement gap between students from high-income and low-income families has more than doubled. International tests show the same pattern, with students from low-income families consistently outperformed by their wealthier classmates.

Poverty doesn’t just affect students at the primary and secondary levels. A recent report finds that 36 percent of college students are food insecure. 36 percent also face housing insecurity, with nine percent reporting periods of homelessness.

Of course, a number of individual students born into poverty beat the odds. But on average, students who arrive to school hungry, who may be suffering from medical issues such as asthma or undiagnosed visual imparities, whose parents do not read to them on a regular basis, and who have experienced traumatic events are not going to perform as well as their better-off peers. The problems are compounded by the increasing number of economically segregated schools, which make it next to impossible for teachers to provide such students the individualized attention they might need.

It would be amazing if anyone involved in education policy were unaware of this overwhelming body of research. It would be particularly disconcerting if the person seemingly unaware of this overwhelming body of research was the president of one of the nation’s leading public university systems and a former Secretary of Education.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee, UNC President and former Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, failed to identify poverty as a major barrier to student achievement in North Carolina.

Spellings was at the General Assembly to update members on the progress of myFutureNC. Spellings created the myFutureNC commission to “discuss state education and training needs, identify obstacles to meeting those needs, and generate policy recommendations.” On Tuesday, Spellings updated the assembled lawmakers on the educational obstacles she has identified:

  • Confusing transfer requirements for community college students looking to move to a four-year college,
  • A complicated and fractured financial aid system,
  • Teacher prep that doesn’t produce teachers entering the classroom as experts, and
  • Inadequate data systems.

At no time did she mention the word “poverty.” To Spellings, poverty apparently plays a smaller role in students’ lives than “inadequate data systems.” One would be hard pressed to find any educators or education researchers who share that view.

You’d also be hard pressed to find anyone with that view among the parents, educators, and business leaders of Greensboro. I attended myFutureNC’s February 28th listening session at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering. The listening sessions are billed as opportunities for members of the public to influence myFutureNC’s work. In my group’s hour-long session, participants described the educational barriers created by childhood poverty. They lamented how inadequate funding prevents schools from helping students overcome these poverty-related barriers. I don’t recall anyone mentioning transfer requirements, financial aid, teacher prep programs, or data systems.

None of this bodes well for the myFutureNC initiative. If Sepllings’ presentation is any indication, myFutureNC appears to be ignoring the public input provided during statewide listening sessions. It would be a shame if folks took time away from work or their families to participate in these listening sessions, only to have their views disregarded. Perhaps participants in other sessions bemoaned our state’s data systems, but, at a minimum, it appears the concerns of Greensboro participants made no impact on Spellings.

More importantly, myFutureNC is badly misdiagnosing the barriers to educational achievement in North Carolina. By ignoring the real issues preventing children from reaching their potential, the commission’s policy recommendations will fail to deliver broad-based increases in academic achievement. While I applaud myFutureNC for striving to establish ambitious educational attainment goals for North Carolina, we’re never going to meet those goals without acknowledging and addressing the role of poverty.

Spellings is no dummy. She certainly knows that poverty is a significantly bigger barrier to academic achievement than the barriers she identified Tuesday. So why is she ignoring poverty? The answer almost certainly lies in the composition of the myFutureNC commissioners. The commissioners include a number of conservative ideologues (Art Pope, State Superintendent Mark Johnson, and Phil Berger’s chief-of-staff Jim Blaine) who would certainly oppose the bold, progressive measures needed to tackle the state’s poverty problem. Still, it’s disappointing to see Spellings ignore obvious truths for purposes of political expediency.

Establishing state education goals, and developing a plan to achieve those goals, is an incredibly important – and difficult – task. It requires both input and buy-in from policymakers, business leaders, educators, academics, and parents. If myFutureNC botches its job, not only will we end up with an inadequate plan to raise student achievement, but it also makes it more difficult for future commissions tackling weighty problems to achieve legitimacy.

Of course, there’s still time to right the ship. But commission members and myFutureNC staff must face the role of poverty and be willing to put forth bold solutions to reduce our state’s shamefully high child poverty rate. Without confronting poverty, North Carolina is unlikely to reach myFutureNC’s attainment goals, or to become a state in which every resident is educated to the extent necessary to lead a fulfilling life.

Kris Nordstrom is a Policy Analyst the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.