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What REALLY Determines Student Performance

Why do the power eliteu2014from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to corporate charter chains (KIPP) to self-promoting edu-celebrities (Michelle Rhee) and to billionaire education hobbyists (Bill Gates)u2014overwhelming champion u201cno excusesu201d ideologies behind their claims about public schools and needed education reform?

“After several decades of rigorous effort, it is fair to say that the majority of our attention in political science has been given to interstate war and civil war,” explains Christian Davenport, adding:

“I would say that it would be interesting to count the number of articles over the last five years on terrorism and compare it to the number of articles on repression but regardless, I stand by the claim that most of our attention has been focused on those activities that challenge political authorities. Actually, it’s probably not even close.

“Why is this the case? Why do governments get a pass? Well, it’s not because of the actual number of deaths associated with different forms of violence….

“I would argue that scholars, especially those in political science, who study challenges to governments do so because this is what governments want us to study. In many ways the targets of political scientists’ gaze has been shaped by those whom we examine. This is what governments and foundations pay for — mostly.”

While this is a powerful and much needed commentary on the inadequate and disproportionate critical work in political science, I believe the exact same charge can be leveled at the current education reform debate.

Why do the power elite—from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to corporate charter chains (KIPP) to self-promoting edu-celebrities (Michelle Rhee) and to billionaire education hobbyists (Bill Gates)—overwhelming champion “no excuses” ideologies behind their claims about public schools and needed education reform?

Primarily because the “no excuses” mantra focuses the public and political gaze where the powerful want it—on the families, children, and institutions overburdened by poverty and not on the powerful who have the resources and influence to shape the inequity upon which they feed.

No Excuses: “Tragic and Unacceptable” Distraction

The “no excuses” ideology triggers deep-seated commitments in the U.S. to myths about rugged individualism and the Puritan work ethic. Americans not only believe we should aspire to a meritocracy, but also trust we live in a meritocracy.

Thus, those in power claim that all children should be succeeding in public schools and then follow up by saying children trapped in poverty should simply try harder (often conceding twice as hard) and that school failure is primarily the fault of the “adults” not trying hard enough as well:

“‘These schools are failing, and failing persistently,’ [SC Superintendent of Education Mick Zais] said. ‘And it’s not the students who are failing in these schools. It’s the adults on the boards, in the districts and in the schools who are failing the children.'”

Like the dynamic posed by Davenport about political science research, the power elite using the “no excuses” mantra to focus the public on families, children, teachers, and schools trapped in poverty gives the powerful a pass. The “no excuses” ideology places the burden of poverty on the people, children, and schools experiencing poverty—suggesting and sometimes directly stating that the people, children, and institutions trapped in poverty are the cause-agents of the poverty (notably because of lack of effort, a failure to take advantage of the opportunities in the meritocracy that doesn’t exist).

“[R]egardless of what you think about the current mix of government programs, educational outcomes are too tightly linked to parents’ economic status,” explains Trina Shanks, adding:

“Many children start out school eager to learn and wanting to achieve. But as it seems that no one cares about their efforts and their basic needs are not being met with each passing grade, they start to become less engaged in school and search for other ways to survive. This is tragic and unacceptable.”

Inequity, Not Merit, Reigns in U.S. Society and Schools

Recent studies have unmasked the tremendous disadvantages children from impoverished communities face. The truth is that achievement and the likelihood anyone can rise above her/his station at birth are powerfully linked to the coincidence of any child’s community.

U.S. society is tremendously inequitable, and our public schools’ primary failure is that due to bureaucratic policies schools more often than not reflect and perpetuate that inequity.

Shanks has shown that the future of a child living in poverty is a function of that child’s race and class, not effort:

“Even children with proven academic ability fall behind if they grow up in families that are poor. By the age of 3, one study showed, poor children already have half the vocabulary of higher-income children. Another study showed that children in high-risk social and economic environments can start in the top 25% academically at the age of 4 but fall to the bottom by the time they are in high school.

In a similar example, only 29% of the highest-achieving eighth-graders complete college if they come from low-income families.

“In contrast, 30% of the lowest-achieving eighth-graders and 74% of the highest-achieving eighth-graders complete college if they come from high-income families. Until we get to a point where ability and effort predictably lead to greater educational attainment and improved outcomes, many kids will stop trying because the obstacles become too daunting.”

Shanks’ Diverging Pathways: How Wealth Shapes Opportunity for Children details the same patterns of race-based inequity:

“Racial disparities in households with young children are dramatic

• In 2007, 32% of white households with young children were income-poor and 14.2% had no assets. In sharp contrast, 69% of Latino and 71% of blacks were income-poor, and 40% had no assets.

Racial disparities in child outcomes start early and grow over time

• At nine months, all children start out with fairly similar scores on a standard child development test, but by two years of age, racial disparities emerge.

The wealth gap widened for households with children

• Between 1994 and 2007, the wealth gap between white and black households with children increased by $22,000 -almost doubling from $25,000 to $47,000.

• In 2007, black households with children held only 4% of the wealth of white households.

• From 2005 to 2007, black households living with zero or negative net worth (debt) grew from 35% to 39% while it stayed constant at 15% for white households.

Maternal education matters, but alone cannot eliminate racial wealth disparities

• For every dollar of wealth owned by a white mother with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1994 a black mother owned 64 cents. By 2007, it had fallen to 13 cents.

• The wealth gap between white and black mothers with a bachelor’s degree or higher grew five times larger between 1994 and 2007 to an astonishing $128,000.”

Davenport argues that as long as scholars look where government wants, “…we end up knowing much less about governments and repressive action than we do revolutionaries and revolution, protesters and protest, rebels and rebellion, and terrorists and terrorism.”

And thus, we sit in the same predicament in terms of how those in power are framing the education quality and education reform debate.

As long as we allow those in power to focus our gaze on people, children, and schools trapped in poverty, “we end up knowing much less” about the powerful people and institutions who create and tolerate that inequity.

As Shanks expressed, that is “tragic and unacceptable,” and I would add inexcusable.

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