This morning’s New York Times has a strong op-ed by Helen Ladd and Ed Fiske. Helen Ladd is a well-known public finance economist at Duke. Ed Fiske is the former education editor of the Times, but is perhaps best known today as the lead author of the “Fiske Guide to Colleges”.
The op-ed points out a truth: economic background has a strong effect on the educational achievement of students, and their eventual economic achievement as adults.
As they point out, this means that it is difficult to design a simple accountability system for schools or teachers that truly rewards high-quality schools and teachers. A school or teacher can be of above-average quality, yet still have lower test scores if a higher percentage of students come from low-income family backgrounds.
As they argue, this doesn’t mean that nothing can or should be done to improve the education and long-term economic fortunes of children from low-income families. As they state,
“Large bodies of research have shown how poor health and nutrition inhibit child development and learning and, conversely, how high-quality early childhood and preschool education programs can enhance them.”
They also argue for the importance of summer learning programs, after-school programs, school-based health centers, and mentoring programs.
Such programs that add learning time and social supports should be complemented, as Ladd and Fiske argue, with policies that “make sure that all children, and particularly disadvantaged children, have access to good schools, as defined by the quality of teachers and principals and of internal policies and practices.”
They frame the issue as a moral one, finishing their op-ed as follows:
“Let’s agree that we know a lot about how to address the ways in which poverty undermines student learning. Whether we choose to face up to that reality is ultimately a moral question.”
I would also argue that the issue of how to deal with the educational issues arising from poverty is a political issue. The challenge is how to build broad-based political support for a strategy to help the long-term achievement of low-income children.
One way to build political support for helping the poor is to look for opportunities to create universal programs that provide especially needed help to the poor. This is one of the advantages of universal access to pre-K as a policy. As I have argued in this blog, and in my book Investing in Kids, high quality universal preschool is able to simultaneously provide significant help to the middle class, while providing a greater percentage boost to the economic status of children from low-income families. Such policy opportunities are hard to find, and should be fully utilized.