Better Schools Won’t Fix America

"Like many rich Americans, I used to think educational investment could heal the country’s ills—but I was wrong. Fighting inequality must come first," writes NIck Hanauer, founder of the public policy incubator Civic Ventures in the July issue of The Atlantic magazine.

AFSA President Diann Woodard preached that message for years before her passing in 2018. In 2010 she wrote in The Huffington Post that, "Food stamps are the first line of defense against poverty and families depend on them to provide healthy meals to feed their children, and nothing short circuits more than the lack of proper nutrition." She knew from her years of teaching that if a child was hungry, it was hard for them to learn and that no test or new model of schooling would solve that problem.

LIke Hanauer, Diann knew  inequity was the issue and there was no quick fix for our schools. She wrote, "the media shares culpability for advancing the rush to false judgments on what it will take to turn around our schools."

In his article, Hanauer says "sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself."

Diann wrote that, "while the purveyors of data-driven education reform keep Waiting for ‘Superman, (a reference to the education movie released in 2010), the real needs of children in our public schools continue to go begging. Superman is not going to save the day for students—especially inner-city kids. They need basic resources that support their families and reduce the stress that undermines learning, like neighborhoods free from poverty and drugs, and supermarkets their parents can reach without taking a round-trip bus ride. Propaganda that vilifies educators trying to cope with the persistent lack of resources and social stability confuses the victims of circumstance with its perpetrators, namely the political leaders responsible for budget cuts, constant experimentation and disparate levels of school funding."

Hanauer concludes, "Educationism appeals to the wealthy and powerful because it tells us what we want to hear: that we can help restore shared prosperity without sharing our wealth or power. As Anand Giridharadas explains in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, narratives like this one let the wealthy feel good about ourselves. By distracting from the true causes of economic inequality, they also defend America’s grossly unequal status quo.

"We have confused a symptom—educational inequality—with the underlying disease: economic inequality. Schooling may boost the prospects of individual workers, but it doesn’t change the core problem, which is that the bottom 90 percent is divvying up a shrinking share of the national wealth. Fixing that problem will require wealthy people to not merely give more, but take less."