The 582-Million-Dollar Question

You’ve seen the headlines: One lucky person from Chicopee, Massachusetts won three-quarters of a billion dollars in this week’s powerball lottery. What can she do with her money? She could buy all the seats—ALL THE SEATS—at the next two Superbowls. She could buy an archipelago of private islands. But, apparently, even with all that money she couldn’t buy better schools for New York City students from low-income homes. Why not? We all know the answer, but we just don’t like to talk about it.

The New York Times reported today that New York’s 582-million dollar investment in its public schools has shown only meh results. Students at a couple of schools showed improvement on test scores, but overall the improvements don’t seem to match the size of the investment.

Why not?

The article concludes that the answer is mysterious. As the authors put it, “nobody knows precisely what works.”

That’s a cop out.

We all know what works: Schools that are part of enthusiastic, involved communities of families, teachers, administrators, and politicians. The problem comes when even the best-intentioned school reformers make the same error we’ve been making for centuries. If we want to improve educational outcomes, we can’t simply invest in academic interventions. And, to be fair, the program in NYC went beyond academics to provide health services for students.

Nevertheless, with apologies to SAGLRROILYBYGTH who are sick of hearing it, we need to repeat the mantra: Schools can’t fix society, schools ARE society. As long as students are living at the bottom of the economic ladder, they—as a whole, not as individuals—will continue to fare far worse on measures of educational achievement.

Why? Not because they lack talent or “grit,” but because they are carrying far heavier life burdens than students from more affluent families. Schools alone can’t level that playing field. No matter how much money we invest, we won’t be able to use academic interventions to solve the problems of poverty. Instead, we need to invest in schools as part of a broader investment in economic equality.

It’s not a mystery, but the sheer political impossibility of doing such a wide-ranging social and economic reform plan leads us always back to the same conundrum. We put the money into schools because we don’t want to confront the depressing truth that our problems are bigger than we like to think.