Why can’t we solve poverty, or solve it through schools?

I’m not that old, and I’ve already seen a lot of proposals for solving “poverty” come and go. Many—think Head Start—are tied up in education. The current debate around education tends to run in two directions: one group wants to improve parenting, or ameliorate poverty, or something along those lines, having seen innumerable correlative studies demonstrating that rich kids on average do better than poor kids at school. The other group—the one I belong to—tends to think that we could do a lot for schools, and especially big urban schools, through some combination of charters, vouchers, and/or weakening the power of teachers’s unions. For more on why the latter group thinks as we do, see the many links in this post.

The first group—the one that wants to attack poverty and what not—tends to say things like cjensen’s: “Statistical studies have long shown that (1) education outcomes strongly correlate with parenting,” to which I replied:

Citations are needed on this: “Statistical studies have long shown that…”

“We”—schools, society, etc.—can’t really control parenting. But we can control schools, and it is probably possible to get substantially better outcomes than the ones we’re getting now, chiefly through better teachers. At the moment, most public school teachers are paid in lockstep based on seniority—CS teachers and PE teachers get the same pay—and can’t be fired after their second or third year of teaching, and that creates a lot of perverse incentives.

Ceras replied with another fairly common sentiment: “Programs exist for this with some positive results. Here’s one from a quick Google search,” and he linked to “Nurse-Family Partnership – Top Tier.”

But innumerable small-scale programs that show limited positive results, but almost none of them scale up, for the reasons Megan McArdle describes at the link:

That pilot program has a huge administrative staff whose sole incentive is to ensure that it is meticulously carried out. In the real world, that curriculum will be put into place by an administrator whose priority list is crowded with everything from mollifying the latest lunatic on the school board[. . . ]

That pilot program is staffed with a narrow band of extremely highly qualified teachers, sifted from the best the environment has to offer. In the real world, whoever happens to be standing in front of the classroom come September 5th has to do it, even if they flunked Remedial Math four times and only got this job because the school board needed a body.

McArdle’s book The Up Side of Down is also good on this subject. Lots of small-scale Head Start programs show promise too, but the program’s effects fade out after a couple years, and on a large scale it hasn’t done anything except provide daycare and jobs. Despite the 40-year failure of Head Start to do what it was intended to do—improve life outcomes for poor, minority kids—there’s a press for it in liberal cities, only now it goes by the phrase “Universal Pre-Kindergarten” (UPK). New York City has a UPK program. Seattle mayor Ed Murray wants one, and he wants to spend a lot of money creating it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALet me return to Ceras’s example. Programs like “Nurse-Family Partnership – Top Tier” (NFP) already operate. I know because I’ve written numerous Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Healthy Start Initiative (HSI) proposals that attempt to do just what NFP proposes. For my real, work-for-money job, I do grant writing for nonprofit and public agencies, so I see citations like the one to NFP all the time. Next time I write an HSI or similar program, I might cite NFP. Doing so isn’t going to make the specific program any better—HSI has been operating for a couple decades, under different names, and hasn’t accomplished much on a large scale, in part because of the scale-up problems described a few paragraphs ago.

Ideas like NFP sound good in the abstract, but the gap between the real world and the proposal world is quite wide. Virtually every idea for improving health, welfare, and education has been funded through some grant program or another, but most people proposing new programs aren’t aware of the old ones—and they aren’t aware of the gap between the real and proposal world. After his $100 million donation to the Newark Public Schools, Zuckerberg has evidently learned this.

So what can “we” do? The people who want to keep the existing structure of education in place usually say they want to fight poverty first. On some level who doesn’t? There are some challenges, however. Poverty is a moving target. It’s usually calculated as a percentage of income, which means that it will always be with us (barring some unforeseen technology, or extinction). In addition, from the perspective of someone in 1800 or 1700 or really anytime before about 1950, we have solved poverty, at least in a material sense. Virtually no one in the United States lacks running water, plumbing, or refrigeration. Almost no one starves to death, and the real problem among the poor is obesity. TV penetration is hovering around 98% of households, and the households without TVs are more likely to be like mine—that is, relatively well-off people who choose not to have a TV.

I’m not saying it’s great to be poor in the U.S., but it’s still better to be poor in the U.S. than to be poor in, say, Nigeria, or Brazil. Globally, there have been innumerable people trying to improve life in the developing world, and many books about why those efforts haven’t been totally effective: Why Nations Fail is good. Dead Aid is good. There are others; you’ll see them at the Amazon links. Developmental economics is an entire field devoted to this question. There aren’t easy answers, because if there were, they already would’ve been found and implemented. To quote Megan McArdle again, “The very existence of a policy issue tells you that it is difficult to solve, either politically or technically.”

Beyond measurement and definitional issues around what one means by “poverty,” consider the history of fighting it. Johnson launched the “War on Poverty” 50 years ago, and even the New York Times (at the link) calls it “a mixed bag,” which sounds charitable to me. There is a large poverty-fighting infrastructure that does some really good things (like Food Stamps, now called TANF), and some less good things. Nonetheless, if poverty could be “fought” successfully, I think it would have already been defeated. That it hasn’t should make us question our approach.

There has also been some regression in terms of culture and behaviors: that’s one important message of Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Most women, for example, are better off having children with a dedicated and ideally married partner, but around 40% of all births are currently to unmarried women. There’s a political argument about why that is and what if anything should be done about it, but the behavioral and sociological changes of the last 50 years are still real.

This has a lot to do with education because, as I noted in the first paragraph, people who are relatively okay with the educational status quo tend to want to address things outside of school first. Diane Ravitch is a great leader for this group. I’ve read two of Ravitch’s books on education—Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform and The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education—and to read her work is to respect her knowledge and erudition. She moved from a strong educational reformer who favored charter schools to someone who… I don’t know how to characterize her current position other than to say she doesn’t favor charters or vouchers. She does observe the many ways particular charter schools haven’t done very well, but in my view they haven’t been worse than the urban schools they competed with, and some have done much better.

Overall, Ravitch wants to reduce poverty, but as noted above I’m skeptical of social or government forces to do so. In Reign of Error, her most recent book—I’m not all the way through it—she says that public schools are better than they’re commonly depicted. She’s somewhat right: relatively wealthy suburban schools are okay. But that pretty much leaves urban schools (L.A., Chicago, New York, Newark) to languish, and those are the areas and schools that are most promising for vouchers.

The final thing I’ll note is that a lot of people favor “more” money for schools. Overall, inflation-adjusted funding has roughly doubled on a per-pupil basis, per the New Yorker article, and overall funding is quite high—including in screwed up districts like Washington D.C.’s. The Great Stagnation also discusses this dynamic. So while “more” money for school districts may or may not be a good thing, it’s apparent that more money does not automatically lead to better results.

This has turned into a much longer post than I meant it to be, but, to reiterate a point made above, there are no simple answers. Though this post is long it is shorter than many of the books it cites, and it is much shorter and more fun to read than many of the proposals I’ve written. The number of people who are genuinely interested in this kind of social policy minutia is probably small, as the popular support for programs like UPK shows.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: New York City is Having Trouble Giving Away Free Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) Slots—And an Early Head Start (EHS) Note

  2. Pingback: Why bother observing inconsistencies? « The Story's Story

  3. Pingback: Trying to Give Away Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) or Early Head Start (EHS)

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