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Poverty and Testing in Education: “The Present Scientifico-legal Complex” pt. 1


[Part I: Poverty]

Jim Taylor has entered the poverty and education debate by asking U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and billionaire/education entrepreneur Bill Gates a direct question:

“I really don't understand you two, the U.S. Secretary of Education and the world's second richest man and noted philanthropist. How can you possibly say that public education can be reformed without eliminating poverty?”

Taylor’s discussion comes to an important element in the debate when he addresses Gates: “Because without understanding the causes of problems, we can't find solutions,” explains Taylor, adding. “You're obviously trying to solve public education's version of the classic ‘chicken or egg’ conundrum.”

Here, recognizing the education/poverty debate as a chick-or-egg problem is the crux of how this debate is missing the most important questions about poverty—and as a result, insuring that Duncan and Gates are winning the argument by perpetuating the argument.

The essential questions about poverty and education should not focus on whether we should address poverty to improve education (where I stand, based on the evidence and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.) or whether we should reform education as a mechanism to alleviate poverty (the tenant of the “no excuses” ideology promoted by Duncan and Gates); the essential question about poverty is: Who creates and allows poverty to exist in the wealthiest and most powerful country in recorded history?


As a basic point of logic, any organized entity—a society, a business, a school—has characteristics that are either created or tolerated by those in power controlling that organization. All entities are by their nature conservative—functioning to maintain the entity itself. In other words, institutions resist change, particularly radical change that threatens the hierarchy of power.

In the U.S., then, poverty exists in the wider society and performs a corrosive influence in the education system (among all of our social institutions) because the ruling elite—political and corporate leaders—need poverty to maintain their elite status at the top of the hierarchy of power.

While the perpetual narratives promoted by the political and corporate elite through the media elite have allowed this point of logic to be masked and ignored in American society, we must face the reality that people with power drive the realities of those without power. Yes, the cultural narratives driven by the elite suggest that people trapped in poverty are somehow in control of that poverty—either creating it themselves due to their own sloth, that they somehow deserve their station in life, or failing to rise above that poverty (and this suggestion allows the source of poverty to be ignored) from their own failure to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.

But that narrative has no basis in evidence—except that those without power do have control of that which creates the conditions that, ironically, benefit the elite. The powerful must allow those without power to have some autonomy—as parents with children—in order to create the illusion of autonomy to keep revolt at bay; this is why the political and corporate elite use the word “choice” and perpetuate the myth that all classes in America have the same access to choice.

Poverty as Necessary for Current Hierarchies of Power

How does poverty benefit the powerful in the U.S.?

• U.S. cultural narratives depend on Utopian elements of democracy, meritocracy, and individual freedom. Those ideals form the basis for most of the cultural narratives expressed by the political and corporate elite in the U.S. Poverty works as the Other in those narratives—that which we must all reject, that which we must strive to avoid. If the Utopian goals, including eliminating poverty, is ever achieved, however, the tension between the working-/middle- class and those in poverty would be eliminated as well, exposing the artificial perch upon which the ruling elite sit. The necessity of poverty works both to keep us from attaining the Utopian goals and to make the Utopian goals attractive.

• Poverty contributes to the crisis motif that keeps the majority of any society distracted from the minority elite benefiting disproportionately from the labor of the majority. Crises large and small—from Nazis, Communists, and Terrorists to crime to teen pregnancy to the achievement gap and the drop-out crisis—create the perception that the average person cannot possibly keep these crises under control (crises that would plunge otherwise decent people into the abyss of poverty) and, thus, needs the leadership of the elite. The majority of average people can only be carried to the promised land of Utopian peace and equality by the sheer force of personality held by only a few; these ruling elite are the only defense against the perpetual crises threatening the ideals we hold sacred (see Part II for how we identify those elite).

• Along with Utopian promises and the refrain of crisis, the ruling elite need the pervasive atmosphere of fear—whether real or fabricated—in order to occupy the time and energy of the majority. [1] Poverty becomes not just a condition to be feared, but also those people to be feared. The cultural narratives—in contrast to the evidence—about poverty and people living in poverty connect poverty and crime, poverty and drug abuse, poverty and domestic violence, poverty and unattractiveness, and most of all, poverty and the failure of the individual to grasp the golden gift of personal freedom afforded by the United States.

Just as we rarely consider the sources of poverty—who controls the conditions of our society—we rarely examine the conditions we are conditioned to associate with poverty and people living in poverty. Are the wealthy without crime? Without drug abuse? Without deceptions of all kinds? Of course not, but the consequences for these acts by someone living in privilege is dramatically different than the consequences for those trapped in poverty.

The ruling elite have created a culture where we see the consequences of poverty, but mask the realities of privilege.

Winners always believe the rules of the game to be fair, and winners need losers in order to maintain the status of “winner.” The U.S., then, is a democracy only as a masking narrative that maintains the necessary tension among classes—the majority working-/middle- class fearful of slipping into poverty, and so consumed by that fear that they are too busy and fearful to consider who controls their lives: “those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives.” [2]

In the narrow debate about poverty and education, we are being manipulated once again by the ruling elite, within which Duncan and Gates function, to focus on the chicken-and-egg problem of poverty/education so that we fail to examine the ruling elite creating and tolerating poverty for their own benefit. By creating the debate they want, they are winning once again.

And that success derives in large part from their successful propaganda campaign about the value of testing.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?:...