Message to Governor Kitzhaber: The road to excellence in education begins with poverty reduction

Chuck Sheketoff

In “Broken" Schools?, a speech that garnered national attention, Dr. Krashen minced no words: “Reduce poverty to improve education, not vice-versa."

Last month, Gov. John Kitzhaber travelled to Springfield, Oregon, to deliver a speech on the “State of the Schools.” In his remarks, the Governor said that “we need a North Star, a compass heading, a destination on which we can focus our aspirations.”

That North Star, the Governor said, ought to be ensuring 100 percent high school graduation and 80 percent of students moving on to secondary education or training. While those ambitious targets —that North Star— are worthy of praise, the plan that Gov. Kitzhaber outlined to get us there starts off on the wrong road.

The plan, which largely follows the advice of a July 2011 report by the Governor’s Oregon Education Investment Team, articulates an “outcomes-based approach” to education.

As OCPP explains in Confront Poverty to Improve Education, the “outcomes-based approach seems flawed on several grounds, but none more glaring than the assumption that education reform can succeed without a plan to reduce poverty.”

The reason is clear:

It’s no secret that children who grow up in poverty face serious obstacles to learning. Compared to better-off children, poor kids are more likely to be exposed to pollution, toxins, noise and crime. They are more likely to experience family instability and separation, as well as hunger and violence.

Such conditions produce chronic levels of stress, impairing children’s cognitive abilities. And research in the field of neurobiology indicates that poverty early in life harms a child’s brain development.

Not surprisingly, children who grow up in poverty lag in their educational achievement compared to better-off kids.

“Fifty years of social science research has confirmed, over and over again, that the best predictor of student achievement is not teacher quality or any other school influence, but the social and economic circumstances of the children,” says Richard Rothstein, a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute and former national education columnist of The New York Times.

While in his speech the Governor did acknowledge the detrimental effect that poverty has on learning, his approach to “transforming” education fails to confront it.

To move us toward the North Star of education, Gov. Kitzhaber needs to lay out a plan to reduce poverty, especially child poverty, which increased yet again last year.

To move us toward the North Star of education, Gov. Kitzhaber needs to become a champion for poverty reduction. He needs to deliver a speech along the lines of the June commencement address delivered by education researcher Dr. Stephen Krashen at Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling. In "Broken" Schools?, a speech that garnered national attention, Dr. Krashen minced no words: “Reduce poverty to improve education, not vice-versa.”

Poverty reduction is the way to fundamentally improve education. Let’s hope that Gov. Kitzhaber finds the road that points to the North Star, the road called Poverty Reduction.

Oregon Center for Public PolicyChuck Sheketoff is the executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. You can sign up to receive email notification of OCPP materials at

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    Wha-wha-what? School reform that actually follows what research says is the easy, cost-effective, and most effective method?

    No, no... I refuse to believe this. Instead, let's get a new textbook (conveniently published by politician X's relation). THAT is how you get schools to perform! Or, lets add more regulations and strip the pay for one of the most regulated and least compensated professions (name me another profession that requires a Masters, yearly retraining, and delivers $50k a year.)

    Of course, this will never pass, as the current American Myth is that everyone wealthy earned it, and everyone poor is poor by choice.

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    I'm surprised more TPers haven't started to scream about wealth distribution here.

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      I don't know that we can, at least in the current climate, view "reducing poverty" as a realistic goal but for the immediate term we absolutely must make reducing the impacts of poverty a priority. Particularly, since we already have in place many of the tools with which to accomplish that... we just need to be increasing rather than slashing funding for them.

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    One out of every 10 students in the Medford School District are homeless. 50.7% qualify for free and reduced lunch.

    Poverty is the issue!

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    Parts of India and China have crushing poverty and suffer from the worst kind of social injustice. Yet many of their schools are turning out students who can "kick the butts" of US students when it comes to graduate work in science, math, engineering, computer software, etc.

    Nobody I know would argue against the need to eliminate or reduce poverty at every level, but while we are waiting for that to happen, isn't it reasonable for Kitz and others to seek changes to the education system that might help US students catch up with their foreign rivals?

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      I'd like to see some stats justifying the statement that schools in the "parts of India and China [that have] crushing poverty and suffer[ing] the worst kind of social injustice are "turning out students who can 'kick the butts' of US students...".

      Certainly there is data to show that the students who are attending schools, are doing better than our students in many areas. While the government of China claims that 99% of children are enrolled in primary schools, the non-self-serving information available on child labor in both China and India would indicate that the most seriously deprived children aren't even enrolled in schools.

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      Are you saying that Krashen's analysis and representation of the research is wrong? And what data do you have that show that the "students who can 'kick the butts' of US students" are not among those in crushing poverty."

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        That's a very strange post. The first sentence defends Krashen's analysis while the second would seem to do exactly that: if students who can "kick the butts of US students" ARE among those in "crushing poverty" then it would seem that poverty is not a critical element.

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        Larry -- sorry, missing the ? at the end -- and it is unclear. I don't think Greg has data showing that those from India and China who compete well here predominantly come from the crushing poverty in those guess is that those who compete well here come from the emerging middle class, not the poorest of the poor. And he certainly hasn't shown any data from this country that disputes Krashen's analysis.

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      You should read the plan they are producing at the state. It will in no way allow our students to kick any butt. It further standardizes education. There is also additional testing for kids as young as 6 and in pre-K. I really don't think a "longitudinal data system" that they are going to sink money into is what is helpful to students. You may also find the work of Dr. Yong Zhao interesting in regards to test scores and global competitiveness.

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    Excellent post, Chuck. My greatest fear is that the road the Governor is driving us down provides false hope that we can somehow overcome the deadly effects of poverty by "better" teaching. As long time worker in the field of educational reseach, I can tell you there is simply no credible evidence of that. Certianly good teaching and great teachers make a tremendous difference for all kid, but they are simply not sufficient in and of themselves The Governor is right to increase attention to and investment in Early Childhood programs. But Oregon's new Investment Board should be spenging more energy figuring out how to pay for school linked health and dental services and sfter-school programs for pre-teen and teen kids -Not talking pie the sky systems for "proficiency based learning." and elaborate and increasing punitive data systems which are obviously intend to force schools and teachers to focus on those few "outcomes" which can be easily measured.

    The effect so far has been to disract the public from the central issue in all of this = we need tp fight poverty!

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    I have to add a slight caveat to my dear friend Rex's post. We need to reduce poverty AND better support teaching (and principal-ing). We shouldn't make this either/or. Less poverty and a stronger school system are both good for kids.

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      With all due respect to my good friend Dana, she seems to have changed the subject here.

      I did not say that support for teaching was unimportant. But how can there be an "either or" situtaion when only one thing is even mentioned?

      The hard fact is that the deliberations of the Educational Investment project to date have been completely dominated by the celebration of specific ideas about teaching that are at best poorly supported by sound research. Can such ideas be counted on to truly support teaching? Hardly.

      Be that as it may, there is also a well recognized and research supported need for investment in a broader and bolder vision of school reform, one where kids and their families recieve assistance with health and dental care, basic nutrtion and after programs which provide for productive use of the after school hours

      But apparently there is no chance of invesment in those aspects of school reform ever rising even to the level of discussion in the current policy enviroment of the OEIB.

      And it sure seems to me that every time that omission is noted, someone quickly changes the subject.

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        Rex, you are spot on - our friend Dana is making a straw man argument.

        And you are right about the the current policy environment. In that environment I don't hear the education reformers calling for more revenues to pay for necessary investments. . . instead I hear some of the same players supporting efforts to cut taxes on the wealthy....just the opposite of a anti-poverty agenda. I am not ready to adopt a job creator.

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        Yes, change the subject indeed. Ugh. Thanks Rex for your wisdom.

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      I am sick and tired of hearing that we need to better support teaching and principal-ing. What does that mean???? Evaluations and tying what makes a good teacher to test scores is what I read into this. Furthermore, who feels that we need this? Ed reformers, that's who. Groups like Stand for Children and the Chalkboard Project who have their own definition of supporting teachers. If these groups are sincere in providing support for teachers and principals, heed these words: provide funds so that we may have smaller classes and more time to collaborate and develop our own curriculum and assessments. I do not need someone from the outside trying to write and explain and develop plans for how I should be teaching kids. Trust me, this is about outsiders controlling teachers, weakening teacher unions, and promoting corporate reform. Don't buy what they are selling.

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    OK, I'll byte.

    Here we are over 47 years post the Great society that ushered in massive federal spending on education, health, welfare, urban renewal and transportation. Yet, the hypothesis presented is that poverty is the primary factor in determining excellence in education?

    Please some empirical date is in order supporting this tired canard.

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      Kurt, listen to the Krashen speech

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        YES! It is fabulous and starts at about 34 minutes in. He hits on everything our state is pushing through. Thanks for sharing this, Chuck.

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      The research finding that socioeconomic factors are the largest determinant of educational achievement has been supported study after study for decades now. Increasing poverty is the biggest barrier to improving educational outcomes (even more than underfunding schools). 2 citations:

      Misty LaCour and Laura Tissington, "The effects of poverty on academic achievement". Educational Research and Reviews. July 2011

      Greg J. Duncan et al. "How much does childhood poverty affect the life chances of children?". American Sociological Review. June 1998.

      The question is not does poverty severely negatively affect student educational achievement, but rather - what are we going to do about it? The so-called education reformers change the subject and blame teachers and public schools.

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