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Inequality, Poverty, and the Educational Reform Movement

Published in ChicagoNow, October 16, 2014

How can a brilliant man who received a rigorous education at a private school and graduated from Yale University end up living in poverty and shot dead for dealing drugs in Newark? That is the question I grappled with as I read The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs.

There is no question that Rob Peace was brilliant. School was his place to shine. His test scores were always excellent. So he would be the perfect example of what the educational reform movement hopes to accomplish by standardizing education through the Common Core curriculum and making teachers and schools accountable for educating every child, regardless of socio-economic inequality. Except he wasn’t.

As Hobbs explains, there was also Shawn Peace, the name Rob was known by in Newark. In that part of his life, he was the child of a single mother who struggled to provide him with food and safe housing. His father was in jail, convicted of murder. Marijuana, both consuming and selling it, was part of his everyday life. And without the structure of school, he had no idea how to live in a world outside of the one in which he grew up.

Ironically, while I was reading this book, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Alex Kotlowitz, author of There are no Children Here. When this book was published in 1992, I was totally moved by the plight of the two boys and their family in Chicago’s Henry Horner housing project. Connections for the Homeless, a local organization that works to provide stable housing for some of the 639 kids in Evanston who do not have homes, sponsored the lecture.

Kotlowitz spoke of how inequality, poverty, racism, violence, and hunger make it difficult for kids to benefit from educational opportunities alone. In the 20 plus years since his book was published, things have gotten even worse. Poverty has become an entrenched way of life and the sense of community has unraveled. Folks no longer trust their neighbors, the culture of meaningful work has vanished, and foreclosed and boarded up homes (18,000 in Chicago since 2011) have degraded neighborhoods. He referenced what Mother Teresa called “the poverty of the spirit.”

As I listened, I wondered what had happened to the boys Kotlowitz wrote about in his book, Pharoah and Lafayette. Sadly, the brothers, now 36 and 33, both served time in prison. Like Rob Peace, they could not escape the drug culture and violence in which they were raised. Despite having a mother who tried her best and despite Kotlowitz’s efforts to help them, their lives assumed the trajectory of their peers.

Kotlowitz and Hobbs discuss the similarities in the stories they told in a review published by Barnes and Noble, Where Empathy is Born. Hobbs shares how his Yale roommate’s 2011 death set him on a quest to understand how a brilliant man given so many educational advantages could end up dead from dealing drugs in Newark. While receiving an excellent education opens many opportunities for success in life, sometimes the overriding issues of inequality and poverty prevent people like Rob Peace from living up to their potential.

I have often wondered why some people are able to overcome adversity and others are destroyed by it. Several days ago, the actress Viola Davis talked about growing up the product of inequality and poverty. She was fundraising to combat the extreme hunger she experienced as a child. She said, in part:

“I was one of the 17 million kids in this country who didn’t know where the next meal was coming from, and I did everything to get food. I have stolen for food. I have jumped in huge garbage bins with maggots for food. I have befriended people in the neighborhood, who I knew had mothers who cooked three meals a day for food, and I sacrificed a childhood for food and grew up in immense shame.”

Somehow, despite her childhood filled with extreme hunger and poverty, she achieved unimaginable success, starring in a television series, appearing in many movies, and nominated for an Academy Award. Unfortunately, Davis is the exception. More often, things end poorly for people like Pharoah, Lafayette, and Rob Peace.

Sports Illustrated’s recent cover story, Young, Gifted, and Homeless, also grapples with the issue of the 100,000 youth, public school, and college athletes who do not have homes. They are part of the 1.3 million homeless children enrolled in our schools in 2012-13. That’s a 58% increase over the previous 6 years. Can we really expect kids who come to school hungry, who have no place to call home, who have nobody to help with homework to “race to the top”? Can we really expect teachers and schools to overcome these obstacles by preparing these kids for “college and career” without addressing the inequality and poverty their students experience every day?

I know. The problem is huge and overwhelming. I have no magic answer. Of course, educational opportunities are very important, but I also agree with Connections when the organization points out,

“Chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn.”

In 2001, the Act to Leave no Child Behind, proposed by the Children’s Defense Fund, was introduced in Congress. Of course, while it sounds similar, this is not at all the same as what passed Congress, No Child Left Behind. Here are a few of the things left out of the measure that became law:

 Health care for all uninsured children

 Head Start for all eligible preschoolers

 Child care for all eligible children

 After school youth development programs

 Tax relief for low-wage working families

 Nutrition and housing assistance for low-income children

 Protection of children from abuse and neglect

 Finding permanent families for vulnerable children and youth

 Protection of children from gun violence

 Working to lift all children out of poverty

 Prevention and intervention to prevent juvenile delinquency

 Building supportive communities for children and their families

Maybe the educational reformers should check out this list. Perhaps some money spent on these items will go farther to help kids like Rob Peace than funding more high stakes testing of our kids.


by Laurie Levy
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