When School Reform Is Not Enough

Josh Anderson is a FutureEd senior fellow studying the impact of poverty on students in Chicago. He worked at Teach for America as a campus recruiter, Chicago-region executive director, national head of recruitment and admissions, and executive vice president of external affairs.

In 2004, I graduated college and started teaching in New York City as a Teach For America corps member. The experience challenged, changed, and inspired me. I was blown away by the magnitude of inequities present in the school where I taught and the neighborhood where my students lived, from insufficient teaching materials to an absence of grocery stores. I was amazed by my students’ resilience and inspired by their progress. And I was captivated by the growing education reform movement of the time, its deep faith in the potential of all children and its commitment to making equal opportunity real.

After the TFA corps, I joined TFA staff and worked for the organization for the next 15 years as a campus recruiter, Chicago-region executive director, national head of recruitment and admissions, and executive vice president of external affairs.

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The reform movement that TFA helped fuel made a big impact. It raised standards for many students and led to major achievement gains in several big city districts and states. It spurred the rise of charter schools, including some incredible schools and school networks. It attracted multiple generations of talented, dedicated, and diverse leaders to the fight for educational opportunity—people who continue to lead vital work from pandemic recovery to school innovation, college persistence and workforce development.

But the movement didn’t achieve its ambitious goal of closing opportunity gaps for low-income students of color. That’s partly because we haven’t been able to implement reforms as widely or as deeply as needed and partly because we have neglected some key problems. We still don’t have clear, ambitious, shared standards for learning that we are truly committed to; teaching continues to be treated as a “weak, semi-profession,” not an honored, selective, empowered, and well-compensated occupation; we haven’t broadly organized schools, school districts, and state systems to be about continuous improvement in pursuit of ambitious instruction and student learning; and, the practice of organizing school attendance, funding, and governance by neighborhood means the nation’s legacy of residential segregation compounds problems in schools serving predominantly low-income children and children of color.

But I have come to believe after working in public school reform for nearly two decades that to achieve the aspirations of the reform movement we need to do more than address these educational challenges. We need a larger reform agenda that extends beyond schools because the structural barriers that our students face across many domains of life and the economy are bigger than education interventions can solve.

Whether you’ve lived it, worked with students who are facing it, or simply have observed the patterns in the country over the last two decades, you can see that these barriers are structurally rooted and that single-system interventions are falling short. The problem is that we haven’t explicitly named this, worked through the implications, and organized a next movement that is equal to this broader understanding of the problem.

Beyond the School House

Low-income children and especially low-income children of color aren’t just going to schools that are, on average, under-equipped to meet their needs. They are facing systemic challenges virtually everywhere they turn and at every stage of life. Continuing patterns of acute residential segregation mean that students tend to grow up in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. And as sociologists have long documented, once this concentration level surpasses a certain threshold, a set of harsh knock-on effects almost invariably follow: blight, collapse of the neighborhood retail sector (so that liquor stores and payday landers become prevalent and virtually any other kind of store is hard to find), increased loitering, and increased violence.

Contrary to long-held and still-prevalent views, the deterioration of living conditions in distressed communities is not caused by culture, but rather is the straightforward consequence of too much privation and too little opportunity in one place. The dominant policy response has been to increase policing and use the criminal justice system to increase public safety, which has reduced crime but with catastrophic long-term consequences for communities. As the historian Elizabeth Hinton notes, today “odds are 50-50 that young urban Black males are in jail, in a cell in one of the 1,821 state or federal prisons across the US, or on probation or parole.”

Meanwhile, students’ parents tend to be stuck in the bottom rungs of the economy. They likely work long hours for low pay, have limited job security, may need to pick up a second or third job to make ends meet, and find their work to be physically and emotionally draining. These are the realities of work for the working class and working poor due to the transformation of labor opportunities in the U.S. over many decades.

To make cash flows work, many families go to payday lenders, not because they think it’s a good idea (they know it’s not), but because it’s their only option. In a cruel irony, low-income Americans pay an average of 10 percent of their income to access their money. Over time, the month-to-month and year-to-year struggle to make ends meet leads to limited or negative wealth accumulation. The Black/White income gap is 2:1. But the Black/White wealth gap is 13:1, reflecting what sociologists Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro say is the compounding of income gaps, differences in home equity, and inequities in cross-generational inheritances.

And then there’s the health-care gap. Poverty’s economic and environmental stressors increase the need for healthcare. But the high cost of health care and the nation’s heavy reliance on employer-sponsored health insurance means that many low-income families have no coverage or lower-quality government-funded care than their more affluent counterparts.
Combine these patterns of systemic inequality across housing, criminal justice, employment, intergenerational wealth and healthcare and consider how they play out in a child’s life.

Growing up, money is tight. Parents are stretched thin. Uncertainty and stress are high. Violence in the neighborhood affects the child’s daily choices (e.g. route to school, spending more time inside) and they will know classmates, friends, or family killed or injured by gun violence. They will be accustomed to a high police presence in their community and likely have classmates, friends, or family who are in prison, on probation, or on parole. It’s harder to see doctors. These realities make learning more difficult.

If, against the odds, they make it to college, they will likely accumulate significant education debt and chances are they will struggle (at least at first) in an institution that’s not equipped to support them sufficiently.  If they graduate, they’ll likely out-earn their parents significantly, but make less than White colleagues with comparable credentials, spend more of their income paying off debt, and face the challenges of navigating White-led institutions as a person of color.

Absent post-secondary learning, the odds are they’ll be stuck in low-rung jobs like their parents. With or without additional education, they will likely have to play an important role supporting their parents financially rather than having their parents help them with a down payment on a first house or providing them with a meaningful inheritance—straining their ability to build wealth, leaving them less able to buy homes in communities where home values are likely to appreciate.

Looking at these patterns holistically, it’s hardly surprising that even really strong education interventions aren’t enough to put most low-income students of color on a path to financial success on par with their more affluent counterparts.

Reshaping Policy and Politics

The greatest strength of the education reform movement, as I experienced it, was the idealism and sense of responsibility at the movement’s core. At the most fundamental level, we shared a belief that talent is equitably distributed but opportunity is not and it’s our responsibility to work relentlessly to expand opportunity to all children.
But in light of the magnitude of structural inequalities in so many students’ lives, we need to think about opportunity gaps more broadly.

The results of the last two decades of intensive school reform prove the proposition that if you run a large population of children in which talent is equitably distributed through an unequal set of social and economic systems, children who receive better opportunities across more systems and at more points in time will have better outcomes. There will be individual outliers. But the aggregate results will unmistakably reflect the distribution of advantage, not ability. And that’s exactly what’s played out in the U.S.

Grounding ourselves in a fuller understanding of what equal opportunity means has clear implications for how we think about policy and politics. First, we need to think bigger about a long-term policy agenda. In broad strokes, this agenda needs to tackle core problems of American education, but also include strategies to build wealth for low-income families, increase incomes for low-wage workers, and invest in historically disinvested communities. The essential question is, what set of policies will be sufficient to address the depth and breadth of the barriers kids face? We need to organize our thinking around children and what they need to thrive, not the silos of government systems.

Second, we need to think differently about politics, starting with a long-term orientation to building and sustaining power to achieve change. How do we build the power needed to achieve such an ambitious long-term policy agenda? How do we cultivate the leadership and develop the organization necessary to wage such an effort? And, how do we build a coalition for a broader agenda? The challenge is to carry forward the ideals and aspirations of the past decades’ reforms as the foundation for a new movement—not just an education reform movement but a broader equity movement.

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