04/23/2013 04:20 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2013

The Gorilla Speaks: It's Time to Change the Conversation About Public Education

Probably like you, I've attended my share of dinner parties, soccer matches, school plays and dance recitals in my career as a parent and now, as a grandmother. Orchestra recitals, publishing parties, dance performances, school plays; it's here -- not at PTO meetings -- where we learn about the worst third grade teacher. Where we find out that your kids are having tea ceremonies as they study Japan and mine are only reading textbooks about Brazil. Here's where I first heard about the teacher who gives easy A's in Advanced Algebra but who yells when the kids get a wrong answer. But in the last 50 years, I've never had a serious conversation about what the purpose of education should be. I can't remember a time in the last half-century when we've been more driven apart by the Education Wars, and yet we've really never discussed what the purpose of education should be. Have we?

That fact hasn't stopped folks from decrying the state of public education today. Just say: "Teacher's unions," or "tenure," or "Common Core Standards," or "teaching to the test," and everyone who's breathing has an opinion. We want our kids to be well-rounded, technology-literate and able to read by second grade. No, by first grade. No, Jimmy is reading in Pre-K, so why not Janie? We want them science-savvy. We hope they can read and write and speak and listen effectively (whatever the heck that means) at "grade level" (whoever decides that?)

For the last 15 years, we've been told that we're not meeting world-wide standards. Hold on just a minute. Could it be because social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared and the relative performance of U.S. adolescents is better than it appears when countries' national average performance is conventionally compared.?

And how about this: Vouchers and tax-credit programs offer families a way to escape failing public schools. Just hang on: There is little evidence that students actually benefit. After four years of looking at such a program in Washington, DC, the results were disappointing.

And this: Only 17% of all charter schools outperform public schools, 34% do worse, and the rest are about the same.

I've been an education consultant for the past 20 years. I work with school districts all over the world. I can tell you that there is very little difference between the teachers in the top-performing suburban schools I work in and the teachers in Chinatown or East LA. The difference is the kids and many of the schools in which these kids must sit all day. The difference is in the bathrooms and in the lunch that's served and in the amount of professional development and who pays for it. The difference is in the number of days the students come to school and in the health care available to them. The difference is in who comes in hungry and who gets to eat on the weekends and holidays. The difference is in the playgrounds and in the amount of art and music and physical education available. The difference is is the classroom size and in the number of books in the library and in the technology available. The difference is who runs out of paper before the end of the year and whose parents have to contribute pencils and kleenex and hand sanitizer.

It's time we stopped talking about the failure of teachers and their unions. Instead of pitting public schools against charters and vouchers, we've all got to take an unvarnished look at the gorilla in the room: poverty. We must change the conversation. It's not that spending money on education is a bad investment; it's where and how that money is spent that's the problem. The sorry fact is that all of the money we have spent educating our poorest students never makes up the difference when poor kids begin school with 14,000 fewer vocabulary words. We can never make up for some kids having no books at home or no one to read to them.

If the research is clear that no money thrown at education after children are infants and toddlers makes a significant difference, why do we persist in putting more money into charter schools and diminishing the power of teachers' unions? And why do we persist in believing that "superior" teachers have a direct correlation with high achievement? I think it has to do with how we perceive the purpose of education.

Education has become a major aspect of the Culture Wars. If some of us see our traditional values under attack, we will find ways to starve the beast. We will use vouchers and charters and tax-credits and parent triggers to reduce public education to a trickle. We will see social programs such as free and reduced lunches or Pell Grants as eroding the moral fabric of our traditional society and they will draft whatever legislation they can to abolish the Department of Education and the schools it serves.

Unless we begin the dialogue about what we believe the purpose of education to be, I will continue to watch in horror as research about poverty is neglected. I will stare in disbelief at the media headlines extolling mistruths about student gains. I will sit with the gorilla waiting for the conversation to begin. Are you ready?