(adapted and posted on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/the-bottom-line-on-no-excuses-and-poverty-in-school-reform/2012/09/29/813683bc-08c1-11e2-afff-d6c7f20a83bf_blog.html)
A letter to Mr. Cerf regarding his statement on Monday night that poverty does not cause educational failure, and that “until you fix education, you can’t fix poverty.”
Dear Mr. Cerf:
While I agree that poverty cannot be cited as the sole causal factor in the “failure” (as deemed by standardized tests) of low-income children (a category which overlaps with others, such as children of color, English language learners, and special needs students), I also think that socio-economic factors that ABSOLUTELY contribute to educational access (at a bare minimum) deserve attention, rather than just pinning the blame on “ineffective teachers” and “failing schools.” The “No excuses” rhetoric is one that is dearly beloved by the corporate education reformers (“poverty is not an excuse for failure”) because it allows them to perpetuate (what many recognize to be) the American myth of meritocracy and continue the privatization movement under the guise of “improving schools”–while not having to address the deeply entrenched inequities that exist in our society and are perpetuated by school structures. Many of their “reforms,” supported by a nationwide acceptance of the “No Excuses” rhetoric, hurt poor children of color rather than helping them (standardized tests have cultural and racial biases; charter schools have been shown to disproportionately underserve children of color, ELLs, and special needs students; closing down “failing” schools forces children out of their home communities and disproportionately puts teachers of color out of work, etc).
There are many, many factors that contribute to the “failing” of our children of color/children who live in poverty/English language learners/ etc. One issue is that parental property/income largely dictates educational access; since poverty, race, and language intersect, the students who attend the “low performing” schools are more likely to be students of color, low income students, and/ or ELLs. These schools (with a few exceptions, like the Abott v Burke law in NJ) are not funded equitably, and schools in high-poverty areas are more likely to have outdated and/or dilapidated facilities; fewer resources; and larger class sizes. Not surprisingly, since the working conditions are challenging, teacher shortages exist, making high-poverty schools more likely to have teachers who are on an emergency license (i.e., a sub), teaching out of their subject area/underprepared, brand new, or, yes, “ineffective.” Such schools are often mired in bureaucracy, suffer from a lack of human capital (which means principals and supervisors have less time to provide support to teachers). These contribute to a heavily-swinging revolving door of teachers. And those are just the school-based factors that are influenced by being a school located in a low-income area. Combine that with a student population that tends to have higher mobility indexes (the percentage of students in a given year moving within or between districts) and absentee rates, the myriad of social issues that plague high-poverty areas and follow students to school (hunger/malnutrition, abuse, homelessness, incarcerated parent, deported parent, crowded home with no privacy, drugs, crime, the list goes on and on) that can affect the students’ mental/physical/emotional well being in the classroom… and this is by no means an exhaustive list, and of course these vary from community to community.
Placing the blame solely (or mostly) on so-called “ineffective” teachers and “failing schools”–rather than adopting a complex analysis of the socio-cultural-economic factors that influence a child’s school experience–is dangerous because it allows the deeply ingrained inequalities in our society and the structural design of schools (which help perpetuate that inequality) to go unchecked while the focus becomes “accountability,” firing teachers, and closing schools. It allows us to adopt a colorblind, one-size-fits all approach instead of a nuanced one that promotes recognition of the ways that schooling can contribute to classism, racism, and language oppression (and of course other -isms as well) and finds solutions to combat them. I myself am committed to the latter.
Rather than closing schools and firing teachers we should be ensuring that the schools have adequate resources and wrap-around services to actually meet the needs of their students; that teachers actually get the mentoring and professional development that they need to be successful; and that the working conditions of the schools are such that teachers and students have their basic needs met. Alongside these kinds of reforms there has to be larger community revitalization initiatives and programs that really tackle the root causes of poverty. Anything else is a mere band-aid. If your agenda really ISN’T privatization–which you said was a “patently ridiculous” charge–you would be interested in stabilizing schools, providing real supports to teachers and students, and finding ways to make sustainable community change. So far, your brand of reform doesn’t come close.