Nov 01 2012

‘Insufficient Resources’ Is Destiny

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.

16 Responses

  1. skepticnotcynic

    I really wonder how such so-called educated people (ed reformers) can look themselves in the mirror every day and actually believe what they spew or advocate when it comes to current education reform. I have encountered a lot of crummy KIPP schools as they have grown. Charter schools and exceptional traditional public schools don’t work at scale due to the fundamental economic problem of scarcity.

    There is a scare amount of resources: money, competent teachers, admins, and parents, and even motivated kids. The more schools charter networks start or takeover, the worse results they will get. At least when we compare them to the current vanity metrics we evaluate schools with.

    Some imperfect education markets are saturated with charters and traditional public schools. Why on earth do we believe that all these schools are going to be great? Excellence is excellence for a reason, it’s rare and isn’t scalable.

    Therefore, why do we allow charters to scale? They should be no more than learning labs where we can try new things for the sake of incremental progress. This may be the cost of innovation/progress, because it’s somewhat unethical.

    • Dienne

      How can any one claim that there is a “scarce amount of resources”, while there always seems to be be unlimited amount of money/resources available for standardized testing, test prep, the latest, greatest new curricula, charter schools, bonuses for principals and teachers who jump through all the right hoops and other administrative pet projects? It’s not that the resources aren’t available, it’s that they’re being funneled into the rheeformers’ pockets.

      • skepticnotcynic

        Resources mean more than just money, and I agree with you that our capital resources are allocated very inefficiently and poorly in education. Always a problem when politics are involved.

  2. meghank

    In my district (and in many others, I’m sure) I no longer want my schools to get more money. I just voted no on a sales tax increase that would have (supposedly) funded Pre-K for all children. I just can’t trust the people in charge of the money anymore.

    It’s spent, like you say, on useless computer programs and massive teacher evaluation systems. It’s also spent on expensive benchmark tests to prepare students for the state tests. The money for Pre-K would have been frittered away in some similarly aggravating fashion, I’m sure.

    So I’d say this lack of trust in the administrators of school budgets is a major obstacle in increasing resources for struggling schools.

    • skepticnotcynic

      Agreed,

      We can give more money to all schools; however, from experience, it will be spent terribly on things that have nothing to do with raising student achievement.

      I guess I learned this from working in a small family business growing up. You learn how to manage resources so much more efficiently when you run your own small business.

      When you hand most people money in government agencies, schools, wall street, etc. you tend to piss it away. It’s very easy to spend other people’s money.

      I always said if I ran the budget at our schools, we would strip away most of the money that goes into things that just don’t matter. As we all know, human capital is the most expensive line-item in a school budget; however, I tend to see a lot of redundancy in the central/regional offices and even among our own administrative team in our schools. Rarely, do I seen enough teachers in under resourced schools. I only saw this once in a very expensive and elite private school. I was blown away by the resources there.

  3. David

    When people tell me this I often respond with, “Then you won’t mind giving up some of your resources.” However, these same reformers never suggest that the resources of the schools their children go to and they went to are cut back. They clearly want poor children to over come things that they could never even imagine contending with.

  4. Harold

    I think this is an important point. As a principal of a Title 1 school with all of the challenges (and mandates, and sanctions, etc.) that the designation implies, we find ourselves at a turning point. Several of our departments have adopted powerful models of instruction which, while not necessarily test-prep friendly, have fortunately produced sufficient test score gains as a byproduct. Some scores even occasionally surpass our more affluent neighbor schools. We’re not safe by any means, but we’ve demonstrated “improvement.” And we’re leveraging our existing resources well.

    So the turning point is that we need to make a decision, and it’s a decision that is above my pay grade. If test scores are the ultimate arbiter and our current rate of incremental improvement is insufficient, then the next step is a massive and sustained influx of resources to help us adopt what’s been called “The New Paternalism,” much like many charters: Longer and more days, more teachers and support staff, more surveillance, more interventions, more assessment, stricter discipline, more college/career guidance, more follow-up beyond school, etc. And we’ll say goodbye to our ambivalent relationship to test prep and just unabashedly love the hell out of it.

    The other option is that we begin expecting other institutions in our country to share this burden, particularly the burden of poverty. It’s far too convenient to assign this task to public schools. We’re an easy target. Granted, there are signs of revolt, but whether the revolt can outpace or at least moderate the legislation remains to be seen.

    What both of these scenarios have in common is the need for public support. In the first case, it’s money. In the second, it’s elbow grease.

    • Steve M

      Harold, what is a “powerful model of instruction”? Please describe what your departments have done in specific terms.

      And, yes, your school needs all of the added resources that both you and Gary mention.

      Currently, it is pointless to look at other institutions for solutions. Our health care, justice and social-welfare systems are just as dysfunctional as education is…perhaps more so.

  5. KrazyTA

    Gary, thank you so much for trying to deal with this issue in such a direct way.

    I would humbly suggest that since you are trying to promote learning and public education, you will find it difficult to compete in the sound-bite/pr competition framed by wealthy eduhucksters pushing product for profit.

    I would use slightly different wording. It is not that every child from a comfortable or wealthy background will inevitably succeed, or that every child from a poor background will inevitably fail, but that “chances are” the first group has a crushingly greater chance of success built into their lives and the latter has a predictably much smaller chance of success built into theirs. Framed another way: the former has a significantly greater margin of error to play with, the latter has a razor-thin margin of error. So yes, poverty is not always destiny, but it makes a huge difference in whether success is close at hand or almost impossibly far away. As the late comic “Moms’ Mabley once said: “I been rich and I been poor, and rich is better!” Think of the Vegas casinos. You can win big, but over time the odds favor the casinos, so they are always guaranteed a winning percentage even if the occasional gambler hits the jackpot and makes the evening news — an event sure to be pushed by the eduhucksters, er casino owners, to lure more suckers, er customers, into their profit-making [darn! another mistake] entertainment establishments where they too can become an instant millionaire, guaranteed! [fine print follows the guarantee]

    How about “bites at the apple?” Even if someone is simply mediocre at everything he/she tries —think GWBjr as a university student, oil man, sports team owner and governor— coming from a privileged background still guarantees you chances almost no one else can even dream of, like running for president. He wasn’t guaranteed the presidency, but he had an almost unlimited number of chances to do anything he wanted to, regardless of his qualifications or proof of past competence.

    What ArneRhee&Co. seek to deny is that their thumbs [and socioeconomic realities] are on the scale, rigging education to produce outcomes that favor themselves and their peers, and disfavor the vast majority. They prefer to frame the whole discussion as individuals with good virtues versus the lazy ignorant majority who just don’t seem to want to succeed [at getting high test scores], i.e., the losers, i.e., us. They are the casino owners; we are the customers. At the very least least we don’t have to buy into their self-serving, self-promoting, and self-justifying rationales like “Poverty is not destiny.” One of the ways to do that: have a blog like this, and I thank you for creating this one.

    Finally, I want to be clear: I appreciate your effort to come up with better arguments, but you have one tough road to hoe.

    :)

  6. EMinNM

    I totally agree with you about the mis-spending of money. Out here we have traditional public schools as well as the Bureau of Indian Education schools. The public schools have a lot of money that we spend questionably; curriculum that doesn’t align to our standards, trainings that don’t teach you anything, testing for ELL data that no one does anything with (because the ELL distinction here is semantics. Really everyone is ELL). But the BIE schools often spend AMAZING amounts of money on things that don’t matter. One school once took all the students to Disneyland as an end of year field trip. Another school has school supplies and ELMOs coming out their ears and a brand-new Macbook (>$1000) for every teacher. It’s not the amount of money necessarily, it’s how that money is spent. And that, like so many other things, comes back to lack of good leadership. We need better leaders in our schools.

  7. meghank

    Hi Gary, I wanted to tell you that my school is being taken over by the Achievement School District in our state (or it has a 10/14 chance of being taken over). It will likely be operated by a charter if it is taken over. It is being targeted for takeover despite the fact that we had the highest possible school-wide score for Value-added last year, a 5. I just wanted to point out that they are doing this despite claiming that value-added is the best way to measure schools. In fact, I believe they are taking schools with the highest value added who still have low levels of proficiency so that they can claim those high value-added scores are their own in a few years.

  8. Another tired ed-reform platitude goes something like this: “Some say we can’t solve education until we solve poverty. Well I say, we can’t solve poverty until we solve education!” [Applause.]

    Though “insufficient resources is destiny” doesn’t have the same snappy ring to it as “poverty is not destiny,” it’s a move in the right direction.

    To parallel this, we should prefer Linda Darling-Hammond’s term “opportunity gap” to “achievement gap.” Criticisms of the term “achievement gap” point to its euphemistic connotations, its focus on test performance over resources availed to students. “Opportunity gap” calls a hat a hat: our perceived achievement gap stems from a wider gap of opportunities in communities and schools — according to Darling-Hammond, “a gap where low-income students, students of color, and English language learners often do not have the same access as others to qualified teachers, high-quality curriculum, and well-resourced classrooms.”

  9. David Eckstrom

    Gary,
    Thanks for the boulder analogy. I’ve been trying to explain this to people for a long time now and I will now start using this idea.

    My only concern is that the lack of physics understanding in our general population will lead to pointless arguments about whether or not two people are exerting more force on the rock than one person, if the rock doesn’t move.: )

  10. It is hard to know how much is insufficient resources versus how much is poorly used resources. I have always wondered what a difference could be made with the right person in charge of the school’s budget…It is also a matter of needing good diagnostics. Putting a child who is struggling with reading, for example, in a reading class where s/he is expected to read more with others who have perhaps different types of issues with reading is not going to help that student, more than likely, yet this is what most schools do. The child needs a thorough diagnostic assessment and then strategies for getting around or through the difficulty, preferably based on the child’s strengths.

  11. Mary M

    Can’t you just say “Resources are destiny?” It makes a better sound bite. And it covers sufficient and insufficient resources and could also cover how resources are used. It applies to all schools and all kids, rich and poor. And it ties right in to the “opportunity gap” point: resources = opportunity.

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