An interesting Labor Day blog post yesterday by Peter Meyer of Flypaper about an important debate in education circles: What is the proper role of schools in educating children in poverty?  Or perhaps more appropriately, what should we expect and demand of schools when it comes to educating children in poverty?  Peter refers to an article by Pedro Noguera in New York Daily News titled “Accept it: Poverty hurts learning: Schools matter, but they’re not all that matters,” and here is the punchy core of his beef with Noguera.

I read it and mostly disagree. You don’t have to know much about education to see the flaws in the veteran educator’s arguments.  At the outset, his description of the two sides (always beware someone says there are two sides to an argument) in the “ongoing debate…about how to teach poor children” is a set-up. He characterizes one side (his) as arguing that

[W]e must address the wide variety of social issues (like poor health and nutrition, mobility, inadequate preparation for school, etc.) that tend to be associated with poverty.

Who is “we” and are they for solving poverty before or after creating a school?  It’s a big part of the debate.

The “other side,” not surprisingly, argues that “schools serving poor children must focus on education alone and stop making excuses.”

Noguera’s problem is that he conflates cause and effect; at least, he turns the purpose of public school inside out.  “We’ve long known that family income combined with parental education is the strongest predictor of how well a student will do on most standardized tests,” he asserts.

What some of us have long known is that public schools were started mainly to educate the poor.  And the only reason poverty is a predictor of bad academic achievement results is that educators like Noguera have made it so.  Instead of schools as tools of liberation, we have made them into great houses of mirrors, reflecting back on students the environment they come from.

Perhaps the most troubling statement in Noguera’s essay is this: “And schools alone – not even the very best schools – cannot erase the effects of poverty.”

I’m not sure where he’s been, but Noguera has not only missed the dozens of success stories – thousands, if you’re counting just the kids who have entered school poor and emerged poor but educated and ready for college – from our growing charter school movement, but decades of success from inner city private schools like the ones run by Catholics.

I mostly agree with Meyers and disagree with Noguera.  Its not that poverty doesn’t matter or that health, nutrition and school preparedness are not important factors.  These factors certainly tend to make putting poor children on the educational path to college more difficult.  There are many cards stacked against them.  The problem is Noguera’s insistence that we need to somehow fix poverty first.  In suggesting this he is making a number of errors.

First, he lets schools completely off the hook, instead of saying to schools and educators: “Yes, you need to do more for these kids so that they can succeed.”

Secondly, his argument leads to an inefficient policy agenda.  Instead of saying, “We need amazing schools and educators to help overcome the challenges that children in poverty face,” he essentially says, “We need complicated and expensive policies across all sectors BEFORE schools can be expected to effectively serve these children.”

But here, as Peter Meyer’s notes, it might be good to look to Catholic schools as an example.  The best answer might be something of a both/and.  It seems that the fundamental reason for the success of the parish-school model of Catholic schools is the overlapping layers of social capital and services that surround the institution.  The parish seeks to meet the spiritual, social, and emotional needs of families, and often in hard times, their financial or other needs through various forms of support.  The school is an activity and an outreach of the parish.  The same families that receive spiritual nourishment and various forms of support through the parish community, send their children to the school that continues this nourishing culture and positive environment.  Churches don’t solve all of the problems of poverty (and the schools should not wait for the Church or society to fix these problems before providing a transformative education to children), but in their best forms, urban Churches with schools serve whole families and the whole child remarkably effectively.  Another reason that Catholic schools offer a unique and powerful solution for educating children in poverty and why “everything possible must be done” to ensure that they remain accessible to these same children who need what they offer so urgently.