Charity Crowell, 9, checks her school supplies at the trailer where she lives with her family in Asheville, N.C. (Photo: Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times) Something profound appears to have occurred—a cosmic shift in the education reform debate that reflects our larger social debates in the U.S.
And more directly and fully, Peter Meyer has offered “A Christmas Carol For Our Schools”: “What I don’t understand in all of this is who exactly is claiming that class (or poverty or parents or kids) doesn’t matter? Ladd and Fiske spend most of their essay stating the obvious: that socio-economic circumstance matters to education outcomes.”
It appears we are experiencing a Christmas Miracle in 2011; we have now come to agreement about the corrosive power of poverty on the educational outcomes of children (although it appears less clear if we are all admitting the same about the inordinate inequity in our country). So let’s consider if this miracle has occurred, and then, if so, what does that mean?
“As with Ravitch’s ‘miracle’ argument (‘the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny,’ she asserted in the Times last May), Ladd and Fiske build mighty big straw men,” claims Meyer. While I find Meyer’s point here ironically creating a strawman to contest the use of strawman arguments, we must acknowledge that the education reform debate has become mired in both charges of strawman arguments (a cyclic and fruitless venture) and surface arguments about whether or not poverty matters.
First, if no one is in fact denying the influence of poverty on student outcomes and teacher/school effectiveness, why does this charge even exist? The answer lies in the two most common refrains coming from education reformers who insist that schools are the single most powerful tool for reforming society (a position that brought me into education and a call that drew me into a doctoral program)—”no excuses” and “poverty is not destiny.”
Choruses of “no excuses” and “poverty is not destiny” punctuate almost all of the discourse and even reform plans coming from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee, and the implications of these bromides are where the problems rest.
In short, the real debate is not whether or not one side believes poverty matters and the other does not (this is genuinely a false dichotomy that likely does not exist). The real debate is where the source of what matterslies and how to address the impact of poverty on the lives and learning of children.
Now, at the risk of oversimplifying, let me offer that the education reform debate is actually occurring between two factions (although within each, there is a great deal of diversity of perspectives) that can fairly be labeled (for convenience, not to marginalize) “No Excuses” Reformers and Social Context Reformers.
“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which (as noted above) effort will result in success.
Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. 
If We Agree on Poverty, What Next?
If we are to take Meyer and Ripley at their word, and if we can fairly extrapolate their confessions to the entirety of the “No Excuses” Reformers, then we must ask some important questions and make some serious changes in both how we debate education reform and conduct education reform.
• Why do we persist in and even increase our dependence on testing, labeling, and punishing students and teachers when we know that standardized tests remain significantly biased by socioeconomic status (linked to parental income and level of education), race, and gender (Santelices & Wilson, 2010; Spelke, 2005)? As long as we continue to evaluate student achievement, teacher quality, and school effectiveness by a tool proven again and again to be primarily a reflection of social conditions beyond the control of the people and institutions being judged, we will never find any common ground—regardless of any concession by reformers about the impact of poverty on children’s lives and learning.
• Why have we created, maintained, and perpetuated an education system that parallels and creates a stratification of students built on measuring, labeling, and sorting—in other words, what sense does having an education system that mirrors our society make if our belief is that those same schools will reform society? If we are to embrace and support public education as a vehicle for social reform, then we must create schools that are unlike our society. We have never done this, and nothing being placed on the table today by “No Excuses” Reformers is offering anything other than schools that perpetuate the status quo of the current U.S.; in fact, a central goal of “no excuses” ideology is using education to instill middle class norms. By definition, then, normalizing is counter to transformation. Schools that transform society ask teachers and students to confront, question, and change the world—not conform to it.
• Why are our reform strategies mired in the same formula—standards, testing, and accountability—since the evidence on the effectiveness of this paradigm (ironically) suggests that it is ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst? James Traub in 2000 carefully and clearly made a case for the ineffectiveness of traditional bureaucratic approaches to school reform. But what followed was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), what was called at the time a massive expansion of the bureaucratic approach to reform. After nearly a decade of NCLB—fifty separate and unsuccessful experiments with accountability—Hout and Elliott have shown that accountability remains essentially ineffective—or at least ineffective if measured against the (misguided) promises that came with our commitment to NCLB (closing achievement gaps, reducing drop-out rates, increasing raw international test rankings). If, as Meyer suggests (“thirty years of ‘war on poverty’ (vis Lyndon Johnson, 1964) and stultifyingly little school improvement to show for it”), we must admit the failure of social welfare in the mid-twentieth century, then we must now admit the failure of bureaucratic education reform based on the accountability paradigm.
• And finally (this to me is the greatest question that must be answered) what logic or evidence supports the implied message of “poverty is not destiny”: That poverty is within the power of people living in poverty to change, that the affluent are somehow not culpable for or powerful enough to change the conditions of inequity? Ample evidence shows that the U.S. is one of the most inequitable democracies in the world (a ranking we choose to ignore while dwelling on PISA), but we seem determined to remain committed to narratives of equity in the face of evidence revealing inequity. Until we examine, as I noted above about educational outcomes, the sources of social inequity, we are likely never to address the impact of poverty on the lives of children and their families.
I am willing to concede that nearly no reasonable people are claiming that poverty doesn’t matter in student educational outcomes, but I must ask that the “No Excuses” Reformers also concede that no Social Context Reformers are seeking to use poverty as an excuse or to maintain some failed status quo of public education.
I also concede that it is far past time to admit the U.S. needs genuine social and educational reform—both of which must be based on a genuine commitment to equity and an acknowledgement that both our society and our schools are currently inequitable.
This concession and action based on it would indeed be the Christmas miracle we need and our children and society deserve.
In “Poverty Matters!: A Christmas Miracle pt. 1,” I conceded the new refrain that no one is discounting the negative influence of poverty on student learning, specifically on the narrow representation of learning through test scores. I also ventured to identify the broad positions of the education reform debate, acknowledging the problem with suggesting anything has two sides but believing that this characterization is fair—with the “No Excuses” Reformers embracing rugged individualism ideology and trusting schools can be a powerful social reform mechanism and Social Context Reformers arguing that social norms create as well as maintain inequities regardless of merit and that school reform will succeed only within larger social reforms. I also confessed that I began my teaching career as a social reconstructionist (more in line with the “No Excuses” Reformers in some ways) but have come to see through the evidence of my nearly thirty years as an educator that the Social Context Reformers are where my allegiances lie.
Here in part 2, I want to be brief, but I think it is time that the “No Excuses” Reform movement answer some questions that simmer beneath their claims of “no excuses” and “poverty is not destiny.” I want to move past the data and to why that data exist, and it is in the why that what claims the “No Excuses” Reformers are making become clear.
• Every year the SAT has been administered, there has been a powerful and consistent positive correlation between parental income/parental level of education and student scores. Except for the more recent writing section of the SAT, another important pattern includes that males score higher than females in the math and reading sections (although the names for these sections have changed over the years). And yes, there are also clear patterns connected with race. (View SAT data HERE). My question is, what is the why behind this data? If we follow the logic of the rugged individualism narrative, the why must lie in the students and thus within gender, race, and class. Is one gender inherently superior to the other, one race superior to the other, one class superior to the other? These top scores are then deserved within the categories—ostensibly a reflection of innate ability, effort, or both? I need this answered.
•And what about our prisons? Disproportionately housing males, and disproportionately housing African American males. What’s the why here? (See the data HERE.) Those in prison have created their lot purely because this is what they deserve due to something inherent in their gender and race?
I could spend more time with the data, the mountain of data showing strong correlations within subcategories by gender, race, and socioeconomic status, but we are spending far too much time on that data and almost no time with the why—and the disturbing implications lurking beneath “no excuses” ideology.
In 2011, white males remain disproportionately in the ranks of the winners. Females and people of color remain outliers in the rarefied air of the 1%. But few people chanting the “no excuses” mantra will take the next step and explain or confront why—or acknowledge that this ideology implies an answer that perpetuates racism, classism, and sexism.
To aspire to a society based on equity and merit is to dream as Martin Luther King Jr. did, but to make claims that equity and merit do in fact exist in order to mask the pronounced privilege that is the status quo of the U.S. is the same strategy that quotes King’s “I Have a Dream” in order to ignorehis more challenging arguments:
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
And note that King didn’t implore us to urge those living in poverty to suck it up, work harder, and simply take advantage of our meritocracy. No, he confronted sloganism that trumps action: “Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.”
Unless I can hear an argument otherwise, I remain convinced there is no excuse for the “no excuses” claim, in society or in schools. Social context matters, and social norms create the winners and the losers regardless of some genuine merit. To cling to hollow ideals simply because they appear to promote a national character only insures to corrupt that character, and likely destroy it.
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