I once owned a home that developed cracks in the plaster on either side of the fireplace. When I patched them they quickly reappeared. This happened repeatedly. So I hired a plasterer who said he could fix them for good. But his efforts also failed. The cracks soon were back. Further investigation revealed that the homebuilder had skimped on concrete when pouring the fireplace footer. In consequence, as the ground froze and thawed, the fireplace moved and the plaster cracked. No amount of repair work would fix the cracks until this very expensive to correct footer problem was dealt with.
America’s low performing schools are like the cracks in my home’s plaster. No amount of fiddling will fix them because something far more basic is amiss. And, that “something” is America’s monstrous economic inequality.
Can such inequality actually cause poor student learning? Yes, and there is plenty of research that proves it. Today, in fact, as the gulf between America’s rich and poor quickly widens, so does the chasm in children’s educational achievement. Family income now almost matches parental education as the most muscular predictor of student academic success.1
How can anyone reasonably demand that no child be “left behind” when the wealth of the top 0.1% of our population equals that of the entire bottom 90%;2 Or compare what the average CEO makes compared to the average American worker. A study by the Harvard Business School found that Americans believe U.S. CEO’s make about 30 times the average worker’s wages. In actuality they make more than 350 times as much. This is more than double the ratio in any other country in the world.3
Now let’s see how inequality specifically impacts U.S. youth:
* Fully 44% of U.S. youngsters fewer than 18 years of age now live in low-income families.
* 22% of U.S. children live in academic achievement destroying poverty.4
* 6.2 million of them live in households lacking the means to regularly get enough nutritious food.5
* And 2.7 million have a parent in prison — where they help the “land of the free” achieve the world’s highest incarceration rate.
These and similar realities impact school outcomes in a wide variety of destructive ways. Here is just one of them: 10% of all school age children, the great majority of them poor, have undiagnosed vision problems;6 Even the most short-sighted of school reformers should be able to see that impaired vision blights learning. But do any of them acknowledge, much less address, problems like this? Nope. They proceed as if public schooling occurs in a vacuum.
And let’s not forget that:
* The reformer’s much vaunted charter schools don’t play by the same rules as traditional public schools. For instance, most can send problem students back to their traditional public school. Direct comparisons, which aren’t that flattering to begin with, are therefore bogus.
* The reformer’s cyber charters, that unintentionally facilitate religious fanaticism, are producing abysmal academic results;7
* Poverty area schools — desperately in need of additional resources — typically are starving for funds;
* Government officials, both state and national are fostering slap dash teacher preparation; and, of course, the most poorly prepared candidates end up teaching in America’s educational Calcutta’s.
* America’s middle class, the main reservoir of successful public school students, has been evaporating since the Reagan years.
Sure, some educators accomplish less than can reasonably be expected. But this typically occurs only after they have unsuccessfully struggled with the effects on their students of toxic inequality. Not being saints, some eventually give up and dysfunction sets in. But, they weren’t without hope when they began teaching. They gave up only after bitter experience repeatedly crushed their hopes.
We hear a lot about teacher accountability these days. But why should educators be held accountable for cleaning up the god-awful consequences for children of bottomless greed? Greed, by the way, that is aided and abetted by the best government money can buy? It isn’t public educators, but plutocrats and their pet politicos who should be held accountable for the soul-destroying, academic achievement smashing misery that their policies and procedures produce.
It’s not that children badly damaged by social injustice, plutocratic greed and bought politicians can’t be successfully taught. Given an orderly environment, thoughtful innovation, adequate training, on-going support for both teachers and students, unusually devoted staff and uncommonly wise leadership, success is possible. But, considering present-day resources and priorities, what are the odds of getting any, much less all, of this in quantity?
Reforming “failing” schools is chasing a will-of-the-wisp. So-called school failures seldom are school failures at all. They are just another of the numerous foul and rapidly metastasizing consequences of the preposterously unfair way our nation’s wealth is distributed.
-- Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D
Professor Emeritus, LaSalle University
1 Wither Opportunity? rising inequality, schools and children’s life chances, Edited by Greg Duncan and Richard Mumane , Russel Sage Foundation, 2011, PP. 91-92.
2 Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, “Exploding wealth inequality in the United States, Washington Center for Equitable Growth, http://equitablegrowth.org/exploding-wealth-inequality-united-states/
3 Roberto Ferdman, The Pay Gap Between CEO’s and Workers Is Much Worse Than You Realize, The Washington Post, September 23, 2014,
4 Child Poverty, National Center for Children in Poverty, http://www.nccp.org/top5cs/childpoverty.html
5 Hungry Children Suffer, Nokidhungry, https://www.nokidhungry.org/problem/hunger-facts
6 Heslin KC, Casey R, Shaheen MA, Cardenas F, Baker RS. Racial and ethnic differences in unmet need for vision care among children with special health care needs. Arch Ophthalmol Chic. 2006;124:895–902.
7 New Report: cyber charter schools’ Performance is Dismal, October 29, 2015, http://dianeravitch.net/2015/10/29/new-reports-virtual-schools-performance-is-dismal/