The Failure of Public Education and Poverty: Symptoms of the Same Pathology

In a recent post on the Blog of Diane Ravitch, she talked about Michael Petrilli’s assertion that education can solve the problem of poverty.

It is my belief that understanding the relationship between poverty and the problems of our systems of education is crucial to fixing education.

Michael Petrilli’s assertion that education can fix poverty may have a ring of truth to it but for reasons other than those that he offers. What is incorrect is to suggest, as many do, that there is a causal relationship between poverty and the problems of public education in America.  Clearly one is influenced by the other and vice versa but that is as far as it goes.

In my new book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, I suggest that poverty, deteriorating neighborhoods, the failure of so many American children, bad schools, and burned out teachers are all symptoms of the same underlying pathology. That we do not recognize the true nature of the relationship contributes greatly to the failure of educational reforms over the past half century.

I suggest that race has nothing to do with this failure but culture is another matter, entirely. There is a expanding population of American men and women who have lost faith and hope in the American dream and no longer believe that they possess control over the outcomes in their lives. These Americans reside under a blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness. What has happened as this cultural phenomenon has evolved since the end of World War II, is that an increasingly more pervasive cultural disdain for education has emerged and it transcends race.

Whatever the ethnicity of a subculture that is characterized by this disdain for education, children in these communities are not taught to value education and are not reared in an environment that would foster a strong motivation to learn. In a time when the American dream has become meaningless, an education, which for generations has been viewed as a pass of admission to the dream, is now a ticket to nowhere.  The children from these cultural pockets throughout much of urban America, and in some rural communities, arrive for their first day of school with precious little motivation to learn an even less preparation. There, they are greeted by a system that is poorly equipped to respond to the challenges that these students present and by educators who are as much victims of the system as are their students.  For huge numbers of these children our educational process sets them up for failure and humiliation and figuratively chews them up and spits them out.

That teachers and their principals are bewildered that these children are disruptive, earn failing grades and disappointing scores on state competency exams is, itself, bewildering.  One wonders how intelligent men and women could ever be persuaded to expect anything else.  Pleas to parents for help and support are shunned by men and women who, themselves, are products of the same educational process. The expectations of these parents are that schools exist to keep the kids out of their hair for five days a week and they resent the intrusion.

In Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, I reject the conventional wisdom about the reasons for the academic failure of a growing percentage of American children and offer an alternative hypothesis. I suggest that the problems with education in the U.S. are 1) this burgeoning disdain for education on the part of parents and the resulting lack of motivation on the part of their children, and 2) an educational process that is focused on failure. The very fact that children can fail contributes greatly to a reality in which so very many of them do.

The book then outlines 19 specific action strategies for reinventing the educational process to one in which children are taught how to succeed within the context of ever-rising expectations followed by 14 action strategies for re-packaging and reselling the American dream and then re-engaging parents as full partners with the teachers and principals; sharing responsibility for the education of their children.  The book is available at this website where you can learn more about the book and also where you can explore my blog, THE LEADer, (Thinking Exponentially: Leadership, Education, and the American Dream)


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