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Strengthening Our Schools: A Legislative Framework to Remove Poverty-Related Barriers to Learning

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Representative Judy Chu (D-Calif.) discusses the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and how it should address the relationship between poverty and education. This piece originally appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, a nonpartisan initiative to promote dialogue and action to reduce poverty and improve economic opportunity.
-- Michael Laracy

As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it must consider the central relationship between poverty and education.

It's widely accepted that education plays a considerable role in breaking the cycle of poverty. This is one of the reasons reauthorization is so important. As one participant in a "Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity" webcast noted recently, if we get reform right, "We unlock and open doors to a larger swath of young people."

This isn't just empty rhetoric. Countless studies demonstrate the link between early education and later prosperity. A report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation earlier this year summarized its findings: "Children who read at grade level by the end of third grade are more successful in school, work, and in life."

But while education's impact on poverty is quite clear, we too often overlook the ways poverty and other outside-the-classroom obstacles limit the educational attainment of our students.

Imagine you're a young, impoverished middle-schooler living in one of our country's major urban areas. Let's say you come from a single-parent household--a single parent who, after returning home from working two minimum-wage jobs to support you and your siblings, is sometimes too tired to prepare you a nutritious meal. Often, you go to school still hungry from the night before. For a good part of the day, you focus more on the pangs in your stomach than the lessons on the chalkboard.

Now, imagine you're a teacher at one of these urban area schools and your job depends on the ability of a class, full of students like the one above, to take and pass a proficiency test mandated by the federal government. Would you feel secure?

As experts like Diane Ravitch point out, one of No Child Left Behind's greatest failures is that it holds teachers accountable for student performance factors well beyond their control. There is a mountain of data that proves even the best teachers and schools fail students who can't focus on learning because of hunger, abuse or a lack of English proficiency.

In fact, a study conducted in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's home city of Chicago found that, controlling for demographics, the external factors facing students are the only difference between which schools succeed and which fail. The lead author explained, "When the density of problems walking through the front door is so palpable everyday, it virtually consumes all your time and energy and detracts from efforts to improve teaching and learning."

With that in mind, it's clear that one of the biggest constraints upon education's capacity to overcome poverty is poverty itself. And if we don't address the obstacles our students face outside school walls, we'll never turn around what goes on within them. That's why everyone committed to issues of poverty and lack of opportunity ought to be paying attention to the upcoming debate around ESEA reauthorization.

Recently, I unveiled a legislative framework called Strengthening Our Schools. It focuses on removing barriers to learning like poverty and poor English language skills. Its approach to turning around, transforming, and rebuilding schools follows three principles:

  • Promote flexibility and collaboration so schools can maximize effective use of their resources
  • Remove barriers to student success to provide an equal opportunity for students to learn
  • Foster teachers and school leaders so schools can address their staffing needs, build capacity, and improve instruction

This framework provides a real alternative to the shortcomings of existing education policy. I'll be pushing for it to be included in ESEA reauthorization and hope you will support it, too.

We all know that a quality education is our best tool in the fight against poverty. But it's up to all of us to ensure that tool is as effective it can be.

Congresswoman Judy Chu represents the 32nd district of California. She is a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor.