When I hear the mantras ‘Poverty Is Not Destiny,’ and ‘Poverty Is Not An Excuse,’ I can understand why they are so compelling. The problem, though, is the ambiguity of the key words: ‘Poverty,’ ‘Destiny,’ and ‘Excuse’.
If ‘Poverty Is Not Destiny’ just means that it is ‘possible’ for someone who grows up poor to have upward social mobility, then I doubt there is anyone sane who would disagree since there are certainly people who are alive and well and who have accomplished this. But for ‘reformers,’ ‘destiny’ doesn’t mean that. When they say ‘Poverty Is Not Destiny’ they mean that every poor person would escape poverty if schools were ‘fixed.’
When you argue against the ‘Poverty Is Not Destiny’ ideology, you get painted into a corner since the inverse — ‘Poverty Is Destiny’ sounds like you are saying it is absolutely impossible for anyone to ‘make it’ when they are born poor.
The only way out is to rephrase to something that more people can agree upon: ‘Insufficient Resources’ Is Destiny.
A suburban school where the students don’t have to contend with so many out of school factors might not need very many resources for the majority of the students to be ‘college bound’ (assuming, for now, that this is a good goal to have). A school with a lot of poor students, though, might require extensive resources in order to get the majority of their students college bound. They might need an army of nurses, social workers, mental health experts, and more. Either school if not provided with sufficient resources is going to ‘fail’ to get the students to be college bound. But the suburban school, not needing as many resources, is likely to have a sufficient amount, while the urban school, since it needs more, is unlikely to get the resources it needs.
So now the chain of logic is: Insufficient Resources Is Destiny, Schools that serve a high percentage of students in poverty always have insufficient resources, therefore, poverty is destiny.
Related to the ‘Poverty Is Not Destiny’ mantra is the ‘Poverty Is Not An Excuse’ line. This also has the ambiguously defined ‘excuse’ in it. What does this mean? Are they saying that some teachers use it as an excuse to not even try to do a good job? Or are they saying that after you fail to get all your kids college bound, you can’t say: “Well, what do you expect? My kids were poor.” I don’t think they can possibly mean that “No Excuses” means that you are not allowed to fail. Nobody has accomplished getting 100% of their students ‘college ready’ — even in a rich school, some of the high school graduates will not complete college. So it can’t be “I don’t want to hear excuses. Just get the job done.” Or does it mean that while you can’t use poverty as an excuse, you are permitted to use something else as an excuse? When KIPP reports that most of their graduates do not go on to graduate college, if they don’t try to figure out ‘why’ they failed, how can they try to improve? But that ‘why’ is an excuse, isn’t it?
But the excuse can’t be ‘poverty,’ so maybe it can be ‘insufficient resources’ instead. Insufficient resources seems like a very plausible excuse for why a plan fails. It is certainly a better excuse than ‘human error’ which is the kind of thing that implies that the failure was preventable.
A reformer might agree that ‘Insufficient Resources’ Is Destiny and that ‘Insufficient Resources’ Is An Excuse, but still quibble about what qualifies as ‘Sufficient Resources.’ I think that the amount of resources the schools would need would be prohibitive. Without crunching the numbers, but just thinking about it, it would probably cost more to provide the resources to these schools than it would to ‘fix’ poverty. Students who do not get the right kind of intellectual stimulation from ages 0 to 5 are very expensive to help catch up. It is one of those “A stitch in time saves nine” scenarios. It doesn’t mean that it is impossible, just that it is expensive. Then I hear from The Gates Foundation that we already spend way more per student than we used to and scores are flat, therefore money does not help. This is like one guy trying to move a huge boulder and then after three more people come and they still can’t budge the boulder together, saying that adding people doesn’t help. Perhaps it will take ten, twenty, or even a hundred people to make a noticeable difference. It doesn’t mean that the two people weren’t exerting twice as much force as the one was.
Reformers disagree, pointing to schools like the KIPP schools that claim that they are able to accomplish what they are trying to with the same resources as the other schools. From what I’ve read, though, they do have more money to spend per student, which would make it very tough to scale their programs. And their results, after you account for attrition and self-selection still aren’t much better. They too would need substantially more resources to eliminate their attrition problems and raise their college completion rates. Harlem Children’s Zone has a huge budget and I think that they have done a good job with their program. But when you ask them what the secret of their success is, they don’t mention all the extra money they have and how they use it. Instead they say that the main difference is that they can fire their teachers at will. It’s like saying that Michael Jordan was great, not because of the hours and hours of practice he put in, but because he always wore his lucky North Carolina shorts under his uniform.
I guess I’m saying that our education ‘crisis’ is really a resources crisis. Not only do schools need more resources, but the resources they have need to be spent better. Rather than spend on computer software that hasn’t been proven to really help, data systems for teacher evaluations that haven’t been proven to really help, or consultants that haven’t been proven to really help, money should go to making schools more like elite private schools: Tiny class sizes and more exposure to the arts and other things that give all kids a chance to excel at something each day. Even Obama has been talking about class size recently, despite the fact that his own secretary of education, Arne Duncan, refuses to make a decisive statement about class size. (He generally says something like “It’s better to have a great teacher with 30 kids in a class than a lousy teacher with 20.” But why are those the only two choices? Why not a great teacher with 20 kids?)
Overcoming all the out of school factors that kids in poverty face is expensive. I think we either have to pay for it or accept that with the limited resources schools will be limited in what they can accomplish. Still, we should try to push that limit as much as we can, but to punish teachers and schools for not being able to do honestly with limited resources what other schools have been doing dishonestly with significantly more resources isn’t going to make things much better and will, more likely, make things worse.