Joseph Crowley has the poverty cart before the education horse

Posted 9/5/19

The Aug. 22 Phoenix had an article entitled, “We should be addressing the real needs of students rather than schools.” The title makes much sense, but the content of Mr. Crowley’s …

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Joseph Crowley has the poverty cart before the education horse

Posted

The Aug. 22 Phoenix had an article entitled, “We should be addressing the real needs of students rather than schools.” The title makes much sense, but the content of Mr. Crowley’s commentary does not. Poverty is not the problem with student success, but rather it is the lack of a culture that values education. In short, poverty itself is not the problem.

Coming from an immigrant community like Bristol, one can easily profile success trajectories of the dirt poor immigrants who came to the U.S. Many came without an ability to communicate in English or to read and write at all.

Beginning in the 1850s with the Irish, in the 1890s the Italians and shortly thereafter the Portuguese, who also came in a second wave in the 1960s, these poor immigrants came and succeeded.

Undeniably among these people there was widespread poverty, but also a strong culture of improvement bolstered by family and group solidarity, religion, and appreciation for the value of education. There was never any sense that poverty was a fixed condition that condemned them to always being 10 yards behind, and certainly never a sense that poverty could hold one back.

If anything, poverty was a reason to work all that much harder and for parents to sacrifice for their children’s future.  There was never a sense that the “learning gap” could not be overcome.

Unfortunately, Mr. Crowley seems to consign children living in poverty to inevitable failure. This deterministic approach is not one we would expect from an educator with impressive credentials. Even more troubling is the comment that “Maintaining people in poverty as we currently do …”.   It is not clear what Mr. Crowley means by this unusual remark, but it does seem that he is inferring that people have no ability to act on their own.

The results achieved by these impoverished immigrants in Bristol were impressive. Among second-generation Italian immigrants there were at least 10 medical doctors and many more who achieved engineering degrees. The same could be said for the Portuguese immigrants who came to America. America was a land of opportunity for these immigrants, and even if 20 yards behind the “privileged,” their culture of success tolerated no barrier to achievement.

Culture not poverty, culture not privilege, culture not race, is the key to success. One can only look at Asians who come to America, who initially live in hovels and sacrifice all for their children’s education. The culture also requires the child to do more homework, spend time in extra educational pursuits on weekends and take more difficult courses. Poverty and lack of privilege do not hold them back.

There are areas in education that present a way forward. In spite of Mr. Crowley’s contention that “Virtually all ‘failing’ schools are in high poverty areas,” the success of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies and the KIPP system of charter schools prove that in the worst high poverty areas, “underprivileged” children can learn and succeed.

Closer to home is the amazing success that Achievement First had with the takeover of the troubled Perry Middle School.  In the positive environment established by Achievement First, impoverished children soon were achieving educational scores equal to those of the best schools in the state.

Mr. Crowley seems to put the cart before the horse. He wants the government to reduce poverty to improve education. Our immigrant experience tells us that the road out of poverty is through a culture that values educational achievement.

Michael T. Byrnes
Bristol

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