The Key to Improving Education in America? Tackle Poverty

The United States was founded on the belief that a child born to parents living below the poverty line could grow up to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company — that upward social mobility exists for every person willing to work hard. Yet inequality in this country is rising. Walking through the maternity ward of a major New York City hospital after the birth of my second son, I was reminded that the American Dream has yet to be fully realized. Our children’s futures are determined more and more by their ZIP codes and the socioeconomic statuses of their parents. The gap in opportunities afforded to the lowest and highest income brackets is widening for many even before they reach preschool.

Education, which many believe to be a great equalizer in the United States, can no longer level the playing field. Academic disparities are stacked against disadvantaged students. Poor schools have fewer resources, shortages of quality teachers, and less funding than wealthier higher performing institutions. The difference in performance between America’s most successful and mid-level students is as large as the difference between average test scores in the United States and Azerbaijan.

Across the Atlantic, in some of South Africa’s poorest townships, I work with a generation of orphaned and vulnerable children. These students are growing up in a nation plagued by the world’s second highest level of inequality, in communities that lack even the most basic economic and social infrastructure. Here, the disparity in academic opportunities and school quality mirrors that of the United States. While only 10.5% of South Africa’s wealthy children are falling behind in the classroom, more than half of its poor students are not learning.

Politicians, policymakers, and teachers alike believe that they have found the answer to these failing education systems — vouchers, charter schools, ending teacher tenure, higher teacher pay, or longer school days. Alone, these nine-second sound bite “solutions” have yet to generate a significant impact. Our oversimplification of this downward academic trend ultimately has hindered our ability to create effective sustainable solutions.

When I co-founded Ubuntu Education Fund in 1999, we started small like many other nonprofits, distributing school supplies to students in a township school. But we quickly realized that education does not exist in a vacuum, and that one-dimensional strategies never promote a lasting impact. So we stepped back and looked at the bigger picture. We saw that before our children even reached the classroom, they were tracked towards failure. Instability at home, domestic abuse, HIV/AIDS, and hunger all prevented them from taking advantage of the few academic opportunities in their community.  

As we intervened in our children’s household stability, health, and education at younger and younger ages, we began to see a marked improvement in their academic performance. Ubuntu students are more than twice as likely to graduate from high school as their peers and, for every one dollar we invest in them, they will earn $8.70 in real earnings over the course of their lifetimes.

Although disadvantaged children in the United States and South Africa face a host of unique context-specific challenges, our model’s guiding strategy is applicable to schools from the Bronx to Johannesburg. Invest deeply in each child. Extend your work beyond the classroom. Yes, focus on improving teacher quality, building safer schools with better resources, and strengthening students’ performance. But don’t forget to launch health campaigns, stabilize homes, and engage families. Understand that it takes more than a computer or a cup of soup to transform a student’s life.

We have to think bigger, to not let our governments politicize this educational crisis, and to stop looking for quick fixes. This is how we can begin to close the gap in opportunities between Port Elizabeth’s township children and South Africa’s elite, between the United States’ wealthiest and poorest communities. This is how we can promote social mobility, realizing the American Dream of equality both in the United States and around the world.

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Jacob Lief

Jacob Lief is the Co-Founder and CEO of Ubuntu Education Fund, a non-profit organization that takes vulnerable children in the townships of Port Elizabeth, South Africa from cradle to career. Nuancing traditional development models, Ubuntu redefined the theory of “going to scale” as they focus on the depth rather than breadth of their programs within a community of 400,000. Ubuntu's programs form an integrated system of medical, health, educational and social services, ensuring that a child who is either orphaned or vulnerable could, after several years, succeed in the world of higher education and employment. In 2009, Jacob was selected as an Aspen Institute Global Fellow and, in 2010, he was recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader. In 2012, he was asked to join the Clinton Global Initiative Advisory Committee. Jacob holds a Bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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