The “no-excuses” school reform movement is famous for giving short shrift to how students are affected by living in poverty and expecting teachers to be able to overcome the consequences. Here’s a different “no excuses” philosophy, by George Wood, superintendent of the Federal Hocking Local Schools in Stewart, Ohio; executive director of the nonprofit Forum for Education and Democracy, and board chair of The Coalition of Essential Schools.
By George Wood
The National Center for Educational Statistics says children living in low-income families now make up 48 percent of the children attending public school. In my district, which sits in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in rural southeast Ohio, that percentage is 63 percent.
For years, educators and children’s advocates have pointed out that educating poor children requires more time and resources. By simply pointing out this fact, they have been accused of “making excuses.” Former President George W. Bush accused them of engaging in “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The “no excuses” crowd chimed in that poverty should never be an excuse for a lack of student success — and that only poor teachers or schools should bear such responsibility.
I don’t agree with those claims. Poverty should not be used as an excuse for a child not succeeding in school, but its effects should not be ignored either. I will admit that we, as a school district, operate on our own type of “no excuses” premise. We believe we should try with every student, every day, to overcome any and all obstacles to learning. Our commitment shows up in our graduation rate, which is regularly higher than 95 percent, and the fact that every one of our students who applies to college (more than 70 percent of our graduates) is accepted in one or more colleges.
So when it comes to children, I suppose I am in favor of a “no excuses” mantra. But my mantra is different. It extends beyond the walls of our public school classrooms.
Here’s my “no excuses” roll call:
* There can be no excuse for every child in America not to have access to health and dental care. A sick child cannot study for a test, and a child who can’t see the chalkboard can’t learn. What can be more fundamental for a child than good health? Yet, only half of the states in our union are expanding Medicaid eligibility to include more families. There is no excuse for denying poor and low-income children the chance to successfully have their medical needs attended to.
* There can be no excuse for the failure to make early childhood education available to every child. Incredibly, the federal sequester has led to the closing of Head Start locations and early childhood programs in many states. In Ohio, we have early childhood programs, but it is up to districts to fund them–something many poor districts serving poor children, cannot do.
* There can be no excuse for not ensuring that every child, regardless of income, has the opportunity to succeed at higher education. In my district and others, the vast majority of graduates qualify for college. The big problem is paying for it. Why should K-12 be the only system told that there are “no excuses”? How about holding colleges and universities to the same level of accountability?
* There can be no excuse for homelessness. According to the National Center of Family Homelessness, one in 45 children experience homelessness each year–or more than 1.6 million American kids.
* There can be no excuse for lack of adequate nutrition. The Child Welfare League of America reports that based on government figures, 13 million children live in households that experience the risk of hunger. That means 10 percent of our children are either experiencing hunger or relying upon food banks to get something on the table.
Every one of the things I have just listed affects how well children do in school. They affect whether a child is healthy, comes to school prepared to learn, has a shot at college, has a roof over his head or food on her family’s table.
No excuses? When it comes to addressing these issues, there should be no excuses for politicians, policy makers, colleges and universities, state governments, private industry or government bureaucrats. Yet we keep making excuses for them and dumping the blame for academic failure at the schoolhouse door.
The fact is, we make no excuses in my school district. Every one of our students gets a great teacher; a rich and varied curriculum (no grouping by ability or other characteristics) that includes the arts and athletics; a decent meal at breakfast (free for all) and lunch (including locally-sourced foods); and the support they need to succeed after graduation.
What we and other school districts need is for the rest of society, who have our children for all of their hours away from school (84 percent of a child’s year is spent out of school), to join us.
How about no more excuses from anyone when it comes to the health, safety, welfare and opportunity for all of America’s kids?