In some sense, okay, poverty isn't destiny and never has been. Ben Franklin, Frederick Douglass and a lot of other heroes of mine have shown that some people can escape the fate that poverty usually points to. But to say that the idea is "outmoded" is pretty galling, not only because it implies that this idea is just a sort of trendy fashion, not only because there is no reason to think that poverty is any less determinative than it has ever been, but also because a more pervasive and pernicious myth is that schools CAN rectify the injustices of an increasingly unequal society.
My first impulse, on reading Kim Marshall's article, was to curse at my computer. But then I thought, well, maybe in fact progress has been made. It's been a few years since I looked into the question of whether schools can overcome poverty. Last I looked into it, I found that, No, in fact, schools cannot overcome poverty. But maybe that conclusion is "outmoded." According to Marshall, "some schools are turning this dynamic around and closing gaps; Education Trust’s website showcases a number of these beat-the-odds schools and what they are doing: https://edtrust.org/dispelling_the_myth/ .
So, okay, I went to the Education Trust's website. I was skeptical, but willing to look at it. If schools were succeeding at overcoming poverty, I wanted to see what they were doing.
Unfortunately, what I found when I looked into it was typical of what I found a few years ago, and typical of education discourse in general. It's the kind of thing that finally got me frustrated enough that I stopped paying much attention to education discourse and research: an absence of evidence that bears even the most cursory examination.
I will try to be brief. The Education Trust is an organization that seems to spend a lot of time and energy showing that schools can overcome poverty. Every year, the Education Trust gives "Dispelling the Myth" awards to schools whose "success dispels the damaging myth that schools can do very little to help students overcome the barriers of poverty and discrimination."
To be clear, this organization looks around the ENTIRE COUNTRY to find schools that overcome poverty. So you might expect that the award-winning schools would have both high poverty, as measured in the standard way by the percentage of students whose family income qualifies them for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch, and also success, as measured by graduation rates and test scores and so on. I looked to see if this was true. But, mirabile dictu, I didn't actually ever even look to see if the award-winning schools had achieved any academic success, because as I started looking at the high schools that had won this award, I was shocked to find that the first two schools listed (there were only three overall) were serving student populations that actually had significantly LOWER POVERTY than the state or national average.
Let me say that again, because I still can't believe it myself: most of the schools that Kim Marshall and the Education Trust cites as showing that schools can overcome poverty actually have SIGNIFICANTLY LESS poverty than average to overcome.
I don't really know what to say about this, except that I hope Kim Marshall puts out a correction in his memo, and spends some time explicating the more important and very pernicious myth that schools can beat poverty. They can't. Schools can work with and nurture the students we are given, but the only real solutions to poverty lie outside the schoolhouse walls.
Notes about the particular schools:
The Education Trust lists only three schools. The first, Imperial High School in California, has 40% low-income students. Statewide 58% of students are low-income (meaning they qualify for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch). At the second, Jack Britt High School in North Carolina, 28% of the students are low-income. Statewide, that number is 58%. That's when I threw my hands up and started to write this blog post. But I did go back and look at the third, which though it's called "Pass Christian High School" seems to be a secular public high school in Missouri. Pass Christian actually does have more low-income students than the state average, if not by much (56% as compared to 50%). But still. If Education Trust combs the country looking foro schools that beat poverty, and this is what they come up with, I don't think we've proved that poverty can be overcome at the schoolwide level.