The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Poverty and Education: Following Up on Last Night's Forum

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Last evening, Professor Jay Davis and I spoke with a group of about 50 students at the Rockefeller Center in a forum on education sponsored by the NAACP chapter at Dartmouth. Professor Davis is both an instructor in the Education Department and the Executive Director for the Summer Enrichment at Dartmouth (SEAD) program through the Tucker Foundation.

I'd like to thank the students who attended for being able to conduct such a candid, thoughtful, and respectful discussion of race, income, and education. In this post, I'd like to summarize some of my recommendations for the students and provide some links to other reading.

In my prepared remarks to open the discussion, I talked about the challenges of local finance in most education systems. To learn more, consider reading my colleague Bill Fischel's Homevoter Hypothesis, which is a text that I use in my local public policy course, PDF iconPBPL 48 (PDF), in the winter term. While local finance systems have problems, Bill shows quite clearly that school finance centralization schemes have had dubious results, at best.

In response to some questions about how to "fix" our education systems, I noted that I think much of the challenges we face are the result of the poor way in which we teach reading to young children, particularly those who do not have a home environment that sets them up for success when they enter formal schooling. I think that E.D. Hirsch's The Knowledge Deficit is one of the most persuasive books ever written on the subject. In his own words:

Once children learn how to decode the printed word accurately and fluently, the main reason they do not read as well as they should is that they do not know as much as they should about the various things the printed words refer to.

So according to Hirsch, the key to better reading, itself a gateway to most other knowledge, is a strong emphasis on building specific background knowledge on a wide range of subjects.

Discussions about inequality in just about any form run the risk of misinterpretation and offense. This article in Sunday's New York Times shows that this has been true of scholars and policy makers over the past several decades. Discussing the way a "Culture of Poverty" is making a comeback in these circles, it begins:

For more than 40 years, social scientists investigating the causes of poverty have tended to treat cultural explanations like Lord Voldemort: That Which Must Not Be Named.

The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a “culture of poverty” to the public in a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.

The students themselves provided excellent examples of the new ways in which these discussions are happening. I think they recognize that the stakes are too high to let the opportunity for productive discussion and research to pass by.

Next up for the Rockefeller Center is a public lecture by Professor Leah Platt Boustan of UCLA on "Black Migration and the Transformation of Northern Cities in the 20th Century." The lecture will be in Rockefeller 3 from 4:30 - 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 20. I hope to see you there.

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences