After 20 years in schools, it is completely obvious to me that schools are limited in their abilities to overcome every challenge that every child faces.
Even in affluent schools, children are plagued by all kinds of out-of-school factors including mental illness of various levels resulting in depression and drug addiction. On an extreme level, poor students suffer disproportionately things like teen pregnancy and death by violence. For my star student, my second year, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend over Thanksgiving break, poverty was, sadly, destiny. I also had a student attempt suicide, unsuccessfully, thankfully. Richer students actually have a higher rate of suicide. Though these are extremes, they are examples of the sorts of things they mean when researchers talk about the major impact of out-of-school factors on educational outcomes. Poor kids have more of these problems than rich kids, and since no school has the resources to ‘fix’ every problem that every child faces, many students are not able to succeed in school.
‘No Excuses’ reformers blame people like me of saying ‘Poverty is destiny’ and then even making the leap, as I read in a recent Huffington Post article by a KIPP supporter, to say that this is the same thing as saying ‘there are still people who believe that poor people can’t learn.’
In the 1960s there was an influential research paper now known as ‘The Coleman Report’ which estimated the influence of out-of-school factors on student achievement at about 70%. That leaves 30% for the schools. This is not the same thing as saying ‘poverty is destiny’ since not every student who lives in poverty necessarily gets 0% out of 70% on their out-of-school component. Let’s say that ‘passing’ is 70%. So a kid from a rich family who gets 60% out of 70% from that only needs to get 10% from the school to pass. While a poor kid who gets 45% out of 70% from the family will need to get 25% out of 30% from the school.
So ‘some’ kids, in this way of looking at things have so many out-of-school factors holding them back, maybe they only get 20% out of 70% there, so no matter how good the school is, they have no chance to ‘pass.’ The school can’t overcome everything.
Incidentally, the reason that schools can’t overcome many things is that they do not have the resources. So if many kids are suicidal and not able to concentrate on their studies, a school would need a team of psychiatrists and social workers and different counselors to even have a chance to prevent this kid from dropping out, and schools don’t have the money for this. So it’s not that schools ‘can’t’ overcome many of the obstacles, but that schools ‘won’t’ because they simply don’t have the resources.
The same limitation exists in ‘good’ schools. I teach at one of the best schools in the country, Stuyvesant High School. We are not a ‘rich’ school as we have 30% free, and 12% free lunch, but the family support, for the most part, is there, and almost all of our students graduate and go to college. But not all. There is a small percent of kids who have serious problems. Some of these kids are poor, but some are not. Our counselors work very hard and do everything in their power. We have the parents come in and some of them are willing to do whatever it takes to get their child back on track. Still, we sometimes fail. Perhaps some group of teachers and school staff could have prevented this student from dropping out, but it was beyond us.
One of my former students, who was a brilliant writer, dropped out two years ago and wrote this column about it for the school newspaper. As the wound was still very fresh (he dropped out about a week before writing this), he definitely felt the school was to blame for this. I know that I had him as a student twice and he was absent about 40% of the time and when I spoke to his mother, she spent a lot of time telling me that she was going to sue the school, which made it tough for us to focus the conversation on how to help this student. The point is that students are very complicated people and even a team of very high paid doctors aren’t able to cure every patient. Some things are out of their control.
The ‘No Excuses’ reformers are a group of people who include Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada. At the TFA 20th anniversary summit, they had a panel discussion which, for me, was the moment that I became the Lex Luthor of TFA. It is about an hour, but you can see it here. Watching this I realized how out of touch these ‘reformers’ were. By thinking that schools have such power to fix every problem of every kid and that they know of schools that are proving this, they send a pretty powerful message — one that politicians pick up on, which is that the ‘other’ schools need to get shut down and the ‘other’ teachers need to be fired.
Commenting about the Coleman conclusion that educational outcomes are said to be determined about 70% by out-of-school factors Joel Klein says:
We give the kids with the greatest challenges the crummiest education and then we say poverty is destiny. If you take those same kids, give them a different education you get different outcomes. Ask these guys they’re doing it. So when people say 70 of outcome is poverty they don’t hold constant the quality of the education so if the quality of the education is no good, you know pretty much what the outcomes are gonna be.
So it’s time for us to stop making excuses. You know, the greatest comfort when I was chancellor would have been to be able to say ‘there’s only a little bit we can do for kids’ and then say ‘we did a little bit’ and declare victory.
But the problem with this logic is that if Coleman was right, then this type of radical reform might actually make things worse. Klein is concerned that school leaders will not try very hard if they think that the in-school influence is limited or that they will celebrate and then stop trying after they have achieved marginal results. But being pleased with realistic success is better than having even less success while attempting reckless solutions. When Klein says that people who agree that schools are somewhat limited in what the can accomplish will be satisfied when they accomplish that ‘little bit’ he assumes that the radical and, I believe, reckless reforms will accomplish more than that ‘little bit.’ But so far, they have not. Not only have they not accomplished a ‘little bit’ in the short term (unless you count some very creative definitions of ‘success’), but in the long term I see these reforms as ultimately harming the kids they were supposed to help. Teaching becomes a temp job. Schools become test-prep factories. This is not what got us to have the top universities in the world.
I like analogies, so I’ll try a new one here. The ed reform wars remind me of a baseball game where a team is down by ten runs. The players will tell each other, “Don’t try to hit home runs. Just get on base.” Though this isn’t a radical reckless plan, it is the one that has the best chance of winning the game. This is how I feel our education strategy should be when faced with the fact that poverty is destiny. The ‘reformers’ would say that the best strategy is for everyone to try to hit homeruns. And in theory, at least, IF it worked, they would win the game. But it is a strategy that is extremely unlikely to work. Yes, in theory scaring all the lazy teachers (and yes, I have known a few and have even been a little tired myself once or twice in my career) into working a little harder, putting an extra hour into planning lessons at night — it ‘might’ increase outcomes. But it is proving to make people want to leave the profession or to game the system by teaching to the test.
And I think that everyone agrees that there is ‘some’ limit to what schools can overcome. It really is just a matter of degree. What do KIPP schools do when kids get addicted to drugs, get pregnant, or join gangs? Are we to believe that they prevent 100% of their students from having these issues? And though the ‘no excuses’ reformers claim never to use poverty as an excuse, why do they now hail ‘miracle schools’ that merely beat the average for their demographic, rather than the average across all demographics? And why did KIPP use the ‘excuse’ that they were unable to find the right leader for the one and only ‘turnaround’ effort they tried at Cole Middle School in Denver when they attempted to keep the same kids who were already in that school rather than have the lottery that benefits from self-selection?
Denying the pretty obvious conclusion of The Coleman Report and using skewed statistics to ‘prove’ that schools have the ability to overcome every problem of every kid — without needing extra resources, has driven The United States mad with testing. This country is suffering from a serious case of Testicular Cancer.
The thing everyone agrees on is that schools can be improved. So ‘reformers’ think they can be improved a lot and I think they can only be improved a little. But that doesn’t mean that I support using poverty as an ‘excuse’ for not trying to do better. Nobody should ever not do the best they can, just because there is a feasible limit to what they can accomplish. It is like if I own a coffee shop. Even though I know that it is virtually impossible for me to make 100 million dollars a year, that doesn’t mean that I stop trying to maximize my profits.
We all want things to improve. The strategies of the reformers have already made things worse, and it is time to hold them accountable for their lack of success.