More Evidence: The "Poor" Can Be Educated

10/04/2011 04:26 pm ET | Updated Dec 04, 2011

Part of the answer to my colleague Mike Petrilli's "Single-minded Focus" question the other day about the depressing college completion data is in Sam Dillon's recent front page New York Times story on the success of incentives (i.e. $$$) programs in getting poor kids into -- and passing -- Advanced Placement courses. (Another part of the answer to Mike's question was in Paul Tough's story for the Times magazine a couple weeks ago, "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?" Tough argues, pretty persuasively, that character helps a lot.)

Mike wonders whether we're doing the wrong thing expecting that kids should go to college. I would suggest that it depends on what you mean by college.

I would further suggest that these days we seem to be awash in existential educational questions like those, brought on by such new controversies (at least, newly packaged) as whether it's good to try to close the achievement gap, whether it's counterproductive to demand "proficiency" as opposed to "improvement," whether "differentiated instruction" is another form of tracking, whether common standards are anti-American, etc. All these tough issues seem to point, roughly, to the Big One: What's the point of an education? What exactly does "college ready" mean? What's the difference between that and being "career ready"?

Mike asks these questions:

...with so many kids dropping out of college -- and especially so many poor kids -- should we reconsider our assumption that higher education is the ticket to the middle class? Isn't it possible that lots of these kids would be better off pursuing the trades or (dare I say) the military?

In a sense, Dillon's Times story helps answer those questions by subverting the premise: that we can or should decipher a difference between higher education preparation and a pursuit of "the trades" or "the military" before before we decide what a K-12 education should -- or can -- do. Yes, Dillon's report is superficially about paying kids and teachers to succeed -- and I'm sure it will invite another round of debate about the merits of merit pay -- but it is really about shattering the myth (again) that poor kids can't learn -- or can't be taught -- the stuff of higher education. (Here, I recommend the new book by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.) The amazing turnaround in the lives of the children participating in the National Math and Science Initiative, as described by Dillon, stands as yet more evidence that schools and teachers can indeed make a difference in poor kids' educational lives.

I would like at least to think we are finally approaching a tipping point in terms of educating "the poor" -- rather, a tipping point in educating our educators: the success stories are now more than exceptions that prove the rule. In fact, at least in my view of things, we are simply reclaiming the optimistic belief that schools are a ticket out of poverty. Now, all we have to do is convince our educators that whether a kid wants to be a plumber or a lawyer, a soldier or a physicist, he or she should finish high school armed with enough knowledge to pursue any of those careers.

Pipe dream? Only if you've given up on the American dream.

This post originally appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog.