By Paul Thomas
Something profound appears to have occurred — a cosmic shift in the education reform debate that reflects our larger social debates in the United States.
After Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske published a commentary in The New York Times , "Class Matters. Why Won't We Admit It?," and Diane Ravitch blogged "Scrooge and School Reform," several commentators quickly chimed in about the poverty debate in education.
Amanda Ripley commented on her own blog to clarify: "I also agree that out-of-school factors are hugely impactful on student learning, of course."
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?
Meyer wrote: “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.” 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 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 — "no excuses" and "poverty is not destiny" — coming from education reformers who insist that schools are the single most powerful tool for reforming society.
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 former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and the implications of these bromides are where the problems rest.
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 matters lies and how to address the impact of poverty on the lives and learning of children.
At the risk of oversimplifying, let me suggest that the education reform debate is occurring between two factions (although within each, there is a great deal of diversity of perspectives). The two 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. "No Excuses" Reformers also 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?
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 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 do we insist on claiming "miracle" and representing outliers as normal? Just as one example, consider the rush to make claims by misusing data in New Jersey. Yet, when a blogger examines the claims and the data carefully, the initial claim disappears, and the result is corrosive for both any further claims of success or any hope for real education reform.
• 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. 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 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, 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 that we must admit the failure of social welfare in the mid-twentieth century — (“thirty years of 'war on poverty' [vis Lyndon Johnson, 1964] and stultifyingly little school improvement to show for it") — then we must now admit the failure of bureaucratic education reform based on the accountability paradigm.
• If we believe schools are a door to an equitable society, why do we maintain a school system that privileges affluent students by placing them in the smallest classes with the most experienced and qualified teachers? (See the disproportionate by socioeconomic status access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs as well as the correlation of SAT scores and socioeconomic status.) And why do promote the experimentation of teacher assignments (Teach for America) with the student populations fairing less well in our schools—children in poverty, children of color, special needs students, and English language learners? The patterns of the system we create and tolerate reveal where our true commitments lie.
• Finally (and this is the most important question). 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 and that the affluent are somehow not culpable for or powerful enough to change the conditions of inequity? Ample evidence shows that the United States has greater income inequality than most democracies in the world (a ranking we choose to ignore while dwelling on PISA test scores of 15-year-olds). 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 concede that nearly no reasonable person is claiming that poverty doesn't matter in student educational outcomes, but "No Excuses" Reformers should 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 that the United States 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.
Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review , 80(1), 106-133.
Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9),950-958.
 I was drawn to education by my faith in education as the lever for social reform, a philosophical stance I came to know as social reconstruction once I entered my doctoral program (read, for example, George Counts, Dare the School Build a New Social Order ? ). In my nearly 30 years as a teacher, I have come to accept, however, that viewing schools as a primary or singular tool for social reform is not supported by the evidence, and as a result (a painful admission I have had to confront), I firmly consider myself a Social Context Reformer.
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