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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 09/29/2012

The bottom line on ‘no excuses’ and poverty in school reform

The issue of the role of poverty in student achievement is far more complicated than the usual depiction of the school reform debate in much of mainstream media.

We hear about the reformers who say student poverty is no excuse for teachers whose students continually get bad standardized test scores, and we hear about their critics who say that outside influences matter more than anything a single teacher can do inside a class, except for those rare students who manage to rise above their circumstances with an inspiring teacher. (You can read more about this here, and here.)

What isn’t noted is that the “no excuses” argument that we hear from Michelle Rhee and like-minded “reformers” is a perverted view of the idea, expressed for years by many, that some educators had indeed given up on tough-to-reach children, and education policies driven by politicians and bureaucrats contributed to a culture of low expectations for some children.

Here’s a new look at the issue from Kathryn Strom, a doctoral fellow in teacher education and teacher development at Montclair State University. Her research centers on teacher preparation for urban/high-poverty schools and teaching for social justice. Strom taught history before returning to school to get her doctorate. She is a member of the New Jersey chapter of the national movement called Save Our Schools and a co-founder of the New Jersey Teacher Activist Groupschools


By Kathryn Strom

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). That’s because there isn’t one single causal factor that can be blamed for the “achievement gap” that exists between the aforementioned student population and their more affluent, white peers. 

But there are complex set of socio-economic factors that ABSOLUTELY contribute to educational access (at a bare minimum), and these deserve attention.  And we cannot continue to merely pin the blame on “ineffective teachers” and “failing schools” while ignoring the ways that poverty is entangled with public school “outcomes” for our children.

 The “no excuses” rhetoric (i.e, “poverty is not an excuse for failure”) is one that is dearly beloved by the corporate education reformers  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 avoiding addressing 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 living in poverty rather than help them (for example, standardized tests have cultural and racial biases; charter schools have been shown to disproportionately underserve children of color, English Language Learners, and special needs students; closing down “failing” schools forces children out of their home communities and disproportionately puts teachers of color out of work).

There are many, many factors that contribute to the “failing” of our children of color/children who live in poverty/English language learners (again, categories that often overlap). 

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 are not funded equitably.  As a result, 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, too, are often mired in bureaucracy and suffer from a lack of human capital (which means principals and supervisors have less time to provide support to teachers). These all contribute to a heavily-swinging revolving door of teachers — which costs a lot of money for schools and kids who can ill afford it, and contributes to the so-called achievement gap.

 These are just some of the school-based factors that are influenced by being a school located in a low-income area.  Combine the above-mentioned issues 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… hopefully, you start to get the idea.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, and of course these vary from community to community.    

Placing the blame 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.

 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 the adoption of 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.

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