Education: Arne and Bill's Misguided Adventure: An Open Letter

What do Arne Duncan and Bill Gates have in common?

Posted Aug 01, 2011

Dear Arne and Bill,

I really don't understand you two, the U.S. Secretary of Education and the world's second richest man and noted philanthropist. How can you possibly say that public education can be reformed without eliminating poverty?

Let's start with you, Arne. Here's a quote from you: "When I was in Chicago, people used to warn me that we could never fix the schools until we ended poverty...But I reject this idea that demography is destiny. Despite challenges at home...I know that every child can learn and thrive." Very inspiring words to be sure, but, unfortunately, magical thinking as well. As I tell my four-year-old daughter frequently, saying something is true doesn't make it true, no matter how many times you say it. What evidence do you have to support these claims? How do you know that every child can learn and thrive? Your certitude sure doesn't jibe with the results in the Chicago schools during your tenure as superintendent (mixed at best). And it definitely rubs up against both the scientific evidence and the "boots on the ground" reality.

Okay, I can understand your unwillingness to accept reality. You're a part of the entrenched system. For all of President Obama's assertions that you were a reformer in Chicago, your orthodoxy has always been quite conventional, squarely inside the public education box. To be so heretical as to argue that education can't be improved without erasing poverty (or least reducing it) would mean that you would have to reject everything you believe about public education. But, Arne, great reformers are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom and their own ideology. If you want to promote real education reform and leave a meaningful legacy, you need to reconsider your most fundamental beliefs about public education.

Now for you, Bill. At a recent speech, you argued "So let's end the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education. I say it's more the other way around: Improving education is the best way to solve poverty." A myth, Bill? Seems like such a perspective is based in the reality of millions of poor children in America today. At least you were willing to admit that "...that I don't understand in a personal way the challenges that poverty creates for families, and schools and teachers...I don't ever want to minimize it. Poverty is a terrible obstacle. But we can't let it be an excuse." No, Bill, not an excuse, but an explanation. Because without understanding the causes of problems, we can't find solutions.

You're obviously trying to solve public education's version of the classic "chicken or egg" conundrum. I agree with you, Bill, that access to quality education would help in the fight against poverty; better educated children will grow up less likely to pass on poverty and its ills to their children. But, though not quite a Catch-22, it is awfully close: You can't get out of poverty without a good education, but you aren't likely to get a good education without first getting out of poverty. And why, Bill, would you attempt change that won't show results for a generation when you could champion efforts that would have immediate returns? I'm not just believing my own rhetoric here. A recent study by a University of Chicago economist supports my take on this Catch-22, concluding that preventive intervention is more cost effective, economically efficient, and fiscally prudent than remediation once children begin school.

You are obviously a brilliant guy and your heart is definitely in the right place, but I would have expected that, as a hugely successful businessman, you wouldn't throw your charitable dollars at programs that have such a low likelihood of an ROI. And, as a truly disruptive thinker, I would have expected more "out of the box" thinking from you. What I also find ironic is that you have devoted billions of dollars to eliminating poverty in other parts of the world, but you aren't applying the same logic here at home.

I understand your faith in the free market system; it's worked great for you. And I can see why you think it would also work in public education. But the free market system just isn't the panacea for all of ills. Gosh, Bill, it doesn't even work for the economy in which we simple folks live! Plus, kids aren't widgets (or should I say, computer chips) and education isn't just about the bottom line.

Let's look at the evidence. A recent ten-year study has shown that school vouchers don't improve academic achievement. Charter schools, over all, don't outperform traditional public schools. And, despite the urban legend (pun intended) to the contrary, teachers are NOT the most significant influence on children's educational outcomes. The single greatest predictor of student performance is their early family life, namely, family income, medical care, family composition, family communication, and early learning experiences (about 60% explanatory power).

The research is so clear. Low-income parents use fewer words with their children on a daily basis, engage in less bidirectional conversation, and expose their children to books and reading far less often compared to middle- and upper-income parents. Why these differences? The answer is also clear: poverty, which include the absence of a living wage, parents working two jobs, too many single-parent families, young, poor, and uneducated young people becoming parents, many parents who speak little or no English, and costly child care.

These differences in early childhood experiences between the haves and the have-nots are striking and seemingly incontrovertible. And the solution to our public education woes seem pretty obvious too: if we improve the quality of early family life, we solve the problems of public education. So, Bill, why are you devoting so many of your hard-earned dollars to a failing proposition? And why, Arne, are you continuing to captain a sinking ship?

So, guys, what do you say? To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, let's put our minds and money into the answers we have, not the answers we might want or wish we have.

Yours respectfully (though frustratingly),

Jim Taylor, Ph.D.

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