I went to the Rialto tonight to see the second installment of Los Graduados, the documentary on Latino youth and the obstacles they face graduating from high school. Last time the focus was on girls, and I was asked to be on the post-film discussion panel. Tonight’s show looked at 3 males from across the country.
I found both episodes and all six profiles to be engaging and compelling. The kids were all interesting and well-spoken, and had a strong sense of self, after various hardships and setbacks.
The only sticking point for me was Pedro Noguera and some comments he made about poverty and education. If I heard and understood him correctly, he said that education is the only way to cure poverty. While this sounds good, and has a certain common sense aspect about it, I don’t believe it to be true. I also think it’s rather dangerous to spread this idea, as it is yet another way to set up public education for failure.
“What I fundamentally believe — and what the president believes,” Duncan told me, “is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”
[More booing and hissing.]
Since the great War on Poverty began almost 50 years ago, the poverty rate in the United States has remained at about 15%. Yet during this time, we’ve graduated more kids from high school than at any other point in time. I would also hazard a guess that more students have gone to college than ever before. Yet poverty is still with us, and in some places and cases, worse than it used to be.
Sociologists define a neighborhood as being in “extreme poverty” if 40 percent or more residents are poor, and Wilson showed that from 1970 to 1980 in the five largest American cities, the number of poor people living in extreme poverty almost tripled.
President Obama talked about poverty a lot in his 2008 campaign, but rarely says the “p” word these days. I think he discovered a hard and disconcerting truth: poverty is difficult to banish. Even Jesus said the poor would always be among us. So now we look to education to solve what almost 50 years of policy have been able to do.
I think rather than education affecting poverty, it’s the other way around: poverty has a hard and unrelenting effect on education. In order for education to make a dent in poverty and its causes and consequences, we need to re-imagine what schools will look like. In addition to teachers, desks and books (or iPads), they’d need to have nurses, social workers, therapists, laundromats, parent education programs, day care, tutors, etc. In other words, they’d need to be a one stop shopping experience. However, unlike the Harlem Children’s Zone, most districts aren’t sitting on $200M reserves to make all this happen.
But we Americans have this romanticized view of public education being the great equalizer, the incubator of democracy and our shared cultural values. But that’s not really the case, and it never has been. Sure, there are people who have risen up in life because of their education, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Public education
has been constructed to maintain existing hierarchies and division, with regard not only to race, but to class status. -Tim Wise
So in my ever-present conspiracy theories, putting the goal of the eradication of poverty on public education will end up being the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.