A couple of years ago Paul Reville, then Massachusetts Education Secretary declared: “Some want to make the absurd argument that the reason low-income youngsters do poorly is that, mysteriously, all the incompetency in our education systems has coincidentally aggregated around low income students. In this view, all we need to do is scrub the system of incompetency and all will be well…”
This is the idea, widely held, that it is all the teachers’ fault. Extending this idea tells us that our problem is tenure or bad colleges of education training teachers badly.
Such ideas, foolish as they may sound to those of us who know something about inequality of educational opportunity, seem appealing because the problem can be fixed by merely firing our way into a better future.
We struggle to grasp and connect the web of issues that converge to drive inequality for children. And if we can grasp the scope of the problem, it seems overwhelming.
Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz helps us this morning in The Wrong Lesson from Detroit’s Bankruptcy. Stiglitz has a wonderful way of translating the real life implications of economic policy. And he understands quality public schools as part of the common good that strong economies are supposed to support.
Stiglitz grew up in Gary, Indiana, and this morning he writes about the role of manufacturing in mid-western cities: “Cities like Detroit and Gary thrived on that industry, not just in terms of the wealth that it produced but also in terms of strong communities, healthy tax bases and good infrastructure. From the stable foundation of Gary’s excellent public schools, influenced by the ideas of the progressive reformer John Dewey, I went on to Amherst College and then to M.I.T. for graduate school.” He continues: “Today, fewer than 8 percent of American workers are employed in manufacturing, and many Rust Belt cities are skeletons.”
The rest of this morning’s article connects the dots, summarized as, “underinvestment in infrastructure and public services, geographic isolation that has marginalized poor and African-American communities in the Rust Belt, intergenerational poverty that has stymied equality of opportunity and the privileging of moneyed interests (like those of corporate executives and financial services companies) over those of workers.”
The rest of the article explains thoroughly how these factors intersect and what we must start to change. “Detroit’s bankruptcy,” Stiglitz writes, “is a reminder of how divided our society has become and how much has to be done to heal the wounds.”
One of those things we’ll have to do is figure out a way to support and improve the public schools in places like Detroit instead of closing and privatizing the schools that struggle and punishing the teachers and children based on high-stakes tests. The children and their teachers are the victims, not the cause, of the structural inequality Stiglitz describes this morning.