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Somewhere, Someone is Discussing a Plan to Address Poverty...

Sam Magavern

Friday, the fourth annual Buffalo Poverty Research Workshop at the Olmsted Center for Sight placed its focus on the complex relationship between poverty and education. The host and first presenter at the morning conference, Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good (PPG), told the more than 150 attendees that common assumptions about that relationship were subject to very serious error and he offered what he called “a thought-provoking hypothesis.” What, he asked, is the effect of poverty on education and the effect of education on poverty?

“We’re currently overestimating the second, and underestimating the first,” he said.

The workshop drew an audience of social scientists, educators, social service representatives, and public officials. The meetings have included discussions of educational issues in the past, but this is the first year there was an exclusive focus on them.

Having staked out his position, Magavern, who is also a lawyer and writer, went on to question the effectiveness and wholesomeness of important public education trends and practices. He deplored the tendency “to think we can test our way” out of the perennial failure of public schools. Nationally, he said, poor children are almost four times more likely not to graduate high school by age 19 than those who are not in poverty. “Cities with the worst poverty rates have the worst graduation rates,” he said. “We don’t have a national educational crisis, we have a crisis of children living in poverty.”

Eighty-eight percent of Buffalo school children are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, he noted, and disparaged the blaming mechanisms that operate in the city. “It’s not teachers or administrators causing bad results, it’s poverty,” he said. Poor children begin school with cultural and language deficits, compared with those from more affluent families, and with far fewer opportunities for enrichment programs.

The roots of urban educational failures, he said, are in the operations and dynamics the American society and its economy, worsened by our misguided responses to these failures. The imposition of more standardized testing and evaluations of teachers are, he charged, based “on wishful thinking” which “diverts attention from poverty.”

This kind of thinking says, “It’s all [teachers union president] Phil Rumore’s fault.” The result, he said, is “we don’t have to improve our economic and social programs” and thereby prop up the situation of American children and families.

Sam Radford, president of the Buffalo District Parent Coordinating Council, a veteran social activist and someone who has tangled with Rumore and the union, told the crowd that he was “going off the page,” chucking his prepared remarks to endorse Magavern’s presentation. Asking if people believed what they’d just heard, Radford bemoaned what he called common “talk about side issues,” like teachers’ contracts, rather than the real causes of the problems. “We’re organized to keep things the way they are,” he said. People are told to lift themselves up by the bootstraps, “be a better parent.” These admonitions, he charged, “are structurally unsound.”

“We’ve got schools in Buffalo where children go to gym in school uniforms and then there are no wash-up facilities,” he said. “That couldn’t happen where people have resources to prevent it.” There is a class division in the Buffalo school system, he said, “and it’s based on the fact that [many] people are poor.”

John Siskar, senior advisor for Buffalo State College’s Pipeline Initiative and former chair of the Art History Department, said sometimes dealing with educational deficiencies is “like trying to sip from a firefighter’s hose.” The college, he said, works in partnership with a number of community organizations in order to help teaching candidates understand urban educational milieux and problems. He too stressed the social origins of educational failures, and proposed that a program in Montgomery County, Maryland, where a minimum percentage of low-income housing has to be included in any publicly assisted development should be adopted in poor urban areas like Buffalo.

University at Buffalo chemistry professor Joseph A. Gardella, Jr., founder and director of a successful program of science instruction in 12 Buffalo schools, joined the conversation from the audience, citing the educational policy-makers “who don’t acknowledge data and analyses,” the kind under discussion. “If we can’t get this conversation out of this room, that’s going to be a part of the failure,” he said.

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