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The poverty excuse.

Alexander Russo on the Poverty Excuse

What happens when high expectations become too high?

These days, lawmakers (and a powerful set of reform advocates) are bombarding educators with incessant messages about making no excuses, putting children first, and doing more with less.

The "no excuses" rhetoric, originally an outgrowth of concerns that educators weren't addressing achievement gaps or even aware that poor, minority students could do rigorous work, has grown steadily over the past 10 or 15 years, reaching its seeming pinnacle this past year with the ascent of figures like Michelle Rhee, documentaries like Waiting for Superman, and media coverage of schools that claim 100 percent graduation rates—along with constant exhortations from education secretary Arne Duncan for educators to do dramatically better. The Bush-era rhetoric about the "soft bigotry of low expectations" seems quaint and mild by comparison. Rhee's 25-page manifesto references poor teachers and low-income families but omits any mention of poverty or its impact on education.

A decade ago it may have been true that schools and districts weren't all doing everything they could to address the needs of poor and minority students. Until NCLB came along, annual testing and disaggregated scores weren't universally available. The achievement gap—and the knowledge that high-poverty, high-achieving schools were real—were novelties in some quarters. And yes, schools can make a difference, even in high-poverty situations, decreasing dropout rates and strengthening students' reading and math skills.

But schools can't really erase poverty's effects entirely, and at this point the expectations that were once too low may have swung too far the other way. The childhood poverty rate is over 20 percent nationwide, and if free and reduced-lunch statistics are to be believed, it exceeds 90 percent in urban districts like Chicago. There are roughly a million homeless children in the nation's schools.

And yet the current crop of our nation's most prominent lawmakers and reform advocates generally refuse to acknowledge the influence of poverty or other social ills, much less support housing or income-support programs that address these issues directly. They focus instead on in-school factors like teacher quality, or charter schools and other solutions, not all of them particularly scalable ones. Last year was "the year they began calling poverty and homelessness an ‘excuse,'" according to progressive blogger Mike Klonsky. "We can pretend all we want that great teachers can overcome the effects of poverty, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, bad eyesight, a lack of early exposure to books. But pretending won't make it so," writes Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss.

At this point, it seems like many districts are doing as much as they can to help with non-school issues. Vision programs are fairly standard, as are school breakfast and, sometimes, suppertime programs. Weekend food programs to help families make it from Friday to Monday. Counseling services seem to be increasingly common. But joblessness, homelessness, crime, and disease are beyond the bounds of what educators can reasonably be expected to take on. Principals can't put out cots in the halls at night to house children and their families. Teachers can't do medical checks on students. Districts can't hire every parent who needs a job.

Does that mean that schools have done everything that they can do? Actually, no. Whereas schools seem to have stepped up to the plate programmatically, providing academic and wraparound social services, there's an obvious gap when it comes to preparing, supporting, and, where necessary, removing teachers who don't have the academic or pedagogical skills that are needed. That is an area where districts could do much better.

Thus far, teachers unions have been taking most of the heat. (A recent article in The Economist came pretty close to blaming poverty on teachers unions.) But soon, attention will turn administrators who allow these situations to continue. Real education spending has increased. Only a handful of districts that I know of have taken on the challenge, changing their evaluation procedures and pressing ed schools for better-prepared teachers.

It's okay to say that there are limits to what schools can do, as long as schools are doing everything they can to improve areas that are legitimately under school control. That's almost the case, and once it is, perhaps lawmakers and leaders will be able to see the impact of larger societal issues.

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