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Editorial: Real hurdle to education reform is poverty

Chicago Teachers UniPresident Karen Lewis addresses City Club Chicago during luncheMaggiano's Banquets Chicago Ill. Tuesday November 20 2012. | Andrew

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis addresses the City Club of Chicago during a luncheon at Maggiano's Banquets in Chicago, Ill., on Tuesday, November 20, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 1, 2013 6:13AM

There is nothing easy about trying to boost academic outcomes for poor kids.

That is why we’ve supported a range of aggressive interventions for the Chicago Public Schools over the years, including school closures, charter openings, turnarounds, improved teacher evaluations, a longer school day and changes to teaching tenure, hiring and firing rules.

We remain convinced those interventions can make the difference at individual schools, for individual kids and, across all schools, can move the needle slightly.

But until society and our schools figures out a way to deal, in a comprehensive and systemic way, with child poverty — a parent’s income and educational level is the biggest predictor of school success — the odds of major improvement are low.

The Chicago Teachers Union has been pressing this point with greater urgency in recent days — and we applaud it. It released a report this month laying out the undeniable link between a parent’s wage and school achievement.

Data from the Nation’s Report Card, a rigorous national exam, show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores across the states is associated with variation in child poverty rates. The vast majority, some 87 percent, of all Chicago public school students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

In its report, the CTU called on CPS to support efforts to lift wages for low-income workers to a $15-per-hour living wage, arguing that moving families out of poverty will improve academic outcomes. The report was commissioned by Stand Up Chicago, a labor and community group, and produced in partisanship with the CTU.

The teachers union is right to broaden the school reform lens and, we hope, help parents and policy makers see (or remember) what really drives the crisis in the Chicago schools.

We disagree with the CTU, though, that other efforts. including charters and turnarounds, should be abandoned. The CTU fails to note that deeply embedded in many of those strategies are efforts to counteract the effects of child poverty. Countless children across Chicago are benefitting from those efforts right now, today.

Still, we support the CTU’s effort to push back against a national chorus, started in the era of President George W. Bush, that accuses anyone of mentioning poverty as giving up on poor kids. Nationally, a similar effort is being led by New York University education professor Diane Ravitch, who is pushing for a direct and honest conversation about poverty as the only starting point for lasting improvement.

Ravitch and CTU President Karen Lewis aren’t caving to what Bush called “soft bigotry of low expectations.” They’re about setting high expectations but giving poor kids the support to reach them.

Lewis said it best herself when she spoke to the City Club of Chicago last month:

“We cannot fix what’s wrong with our schools until we are prepared to have honest conversations about poverty and race,” Lewis said. “Until we do, we will be mired in the no-excuses mentality [that] poverty doesn’t matter. Poverty matters a lot when you are teaching children who are distracted by their lives. Poverty matters a lot when you are teaching children who have seen trauma like none of us in this room can imagine.”

There is nothing easy about trying to boost academic outcomes for poor kids.

But there is little else that is more important.

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