We’re not in Mayberry any more

As an advocate for education policies to help children living in poverty narrow the achievement gap, I, like many others, tend to think of the Bronx, Newark, and East St. Louis as epicenters of stubborn rich-poor and white-Black achievement gaps. But the Great Recession has put millions of children living in suburbs and even in the bucolic “heartland” of America in dire educational straits. And as a recent New Yorker article illustrates, this reality has been festering for a decade, with origins long before the housing and economic busts of the past few years.

So-called education reformers and the “experts” on whom they rely point to unions, lazy teachers, and uninspired principals as the culprits. Yet, 50 years of rigorous evidence make clear the vicious impact of poverty and its various familial stresses on student well-being. This body of research is backed in real time by the inability of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and other policies focused on standards-and-accountability measures to substantially narrow the gaps.

George Packer’s assertion that since September 11, “the country’s problems were left to rot” is all-too clearly played out in Mount Airy, N.C., the town that inspired Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. This American small town is indeed, Packer says, typical, but not in any ideal way. Rather, Surry County’s job losses have spread since 9/11 from former textile workers to veterans newly back from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Packer concludes ominously that “You were your kids’ hero when you went, but three years later, when you might be losing your home or you’re impoverished, you might not be your kids’ hero anymore.” Long-term unemployment, unstable housing, insufficient food and stressed-out home environments also mean that you won’t be the same parent or teacher anymore. Mayberry, welcome to the Bronx.