If you only read one thing this week (besides, um, this blog post) please, please, please make it Jill LePore’s New Yorker article on the history and failures of child protection policies in the United States. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s depressing (the story opens with the discovery of a dead little girl’s body). But it tells an important story than anyone concerned about the wellbeing and futures of at-risk children in America–including those of us working to improve education– needs to pay attention to.
LePore argues that, in the absence of more robust systems of support, the burden of responding to the challenges of families in poverty has fallen on child protection systems that were never designed to play this role. She documents the cycle of public hysteria and “reform,” followed be public disillusionment and neglect, that has dominated our public response to high-profile cases of child abuse and neglect–and led to the preventable deaths of vulnerable children. And she makes a compelling case that changing this cycle requires rebuilding systems of public support and prevention that take seriously the challenges of families in poverty and support–rather than stigmatize–poor mothers and families trying to care for their children.
LePore explains how current federal and state child welfare policies and programs developed in the wake of the Nixon administration’s veto of universal childcare legislation, noting that intervening to protect children from abuse was far more politically salable than helping mothers living in poverty, but that the approach elided important realities and left underlying causes of child abuse and neglect unaddressed and the systems designed to address them underfunded and vulnerable to state and federal budget cuts in times of economic crisis or fiscal retrenchment.
I can’t help seeing a parallel here to education. Like child welfare–and unlike other programs to support poor families–public education is one of the few programs and institutions that Americans widely accept as necessary to serve children and families, in part because of our national belief in education as a mechanism for self-improvement, and in part because public education is universal, rather than explicitly focused on poor children and families. Over the past two decades, reformers interested in improving the lives and outcomes of children in poverty have increasingly focused on public education as the vehicle to address the needs of children and poverty–both through education reforms focused on accountability and closing the achievement gap, and more progressive proposals such as community schools. Yet public education also was not designed to, and on its own cannot, fully address the challenges of children and families in poverty.
Recognizing this is not a rejection of public education reform, nor an admission of agreement with those who say that poverty, rather than poor schools, is sole cause of education gaps today. I’ve been in enough schools, known enough educators, and looked at enough data to know that different schools and school systems vary widely in the extent to which they provide quality learning environments and effective instruction to similar populations of poor and otherwise at-risk children. And the failure of many of our public education systems to provide these things to children in poverty, or even to non-poor children living in communities with lots of poor kids, simply compounds the already overwhelming challenges facing poor children, parents, and families. At the very least, our universal public education system should not continue to provide such radically inferior learning experiences to so many poor children.
But the Herculean efforts required of many educators to effectively educate poor children today, and the limitations of the results of even the most effective educational models, suggests that this is not enough. In order to maximize the potential of children in poverty and enable them to overcome the significant challenges to which they are born, we need much more robust systems to support their families–from early childhood through adolescence and beyond. Some of this, as progressives argue, may require policies of redistribution such as expanded access to affordable childcare, health care, and family leave policies. But these government policies cannot solve the problem on their own. It also requires a civic and community infrastructure of organizations and individuals capable of supporting parents and families in a deeply personal way–something that has never existed in some places and has been slowly decimated in others by increasing income segregation, cuts in public funding, and the increased pressures and business on working non-poor families.
At a time when one in five children lives in poverty and forty percent are born to single mothers, these systems of support are more crucial than ever before–both often lacking. How to create them is a conversation that we need to have–and one that should cut across both partisan divides and the less partisan but equally deep fissures within the education debate.