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Posted at 11:49 AM ET, 10/ 1/2010

The poverty gap: There are always exceptions, but they make bad education policy

By Valerie Strauss

This week I wrote about a discussion on school reform between President Obama and NBC's Matt Lauer that walked right up to the issue of the effects of poverty on student achievement but then veered away.

Calling the issue "the elephant" that the two ignored, I cited statistics and studies showing the strong connection between poverty and education and noted that today’s crop of education reformers like to dismiss the issue and say that teachers use it an excuse when their students consistently have low standardized test scores.

Some readers pointed out that some high-poverty schools are successful with needy children without changing the conditions of their life outside school.

They are right. There are always exceptions. Ursula Casanova’s new book, “Si Se Puede! Learning from a high school that beat the odds,” demonstrates this at a terrific school for Latino kids.

But that isn’t the point.

As David Berliner, researcher and professor emeritus (and Casanova’s husband) notes:

“The way I counter these comments is to remind people that we all know the story of the guy who smokes a pack and a half of cigarettes and drinks a pint of bourbon a day and lived to 95. There are exceptions to the rules. So what? Most people won't smoke and drink heavily even if they know this story of exceptionality because they also know the most likely case is that you will die younger and possibly horribly."

"Poverty usually effects lives in bad ways --- but occasionally a teacher or a school makes a difference, and that is wonderful. But it doesn’t change the odds very much since the default position is harm for kids in poverty just as it is for heavy smokers and drinkers."
This isn’t to say that schools can’t make some difference in some circumstances, and that they should get a pass for failing to try. It is not to say that lousy teachers should be allowed to stay in classrooms.

But we need to accept this reality: The strongest predictor of student success in school has long been family income and parents' education level.

So we can applaud and shower with attention the students and teachers and schools that beat the odds, but it’s a bad idea to pretend that the exceptions are anything but exceptions.

New statistics released by the Census Bureau this week show that three out of 10 children in the nation’s capital were living in poverty last year, with the number of poor African American children rising at a breathtaking rate.

Among black children in the city, childhood poverty shot up to 43 percent, from 36 percent in 2008 and 31 percent in 2007. That was a much sharper increase than the two percentage-point jump, to 36 percent, among poor black children nationwide last year.

Does this affect the city’s public school system?

You bet it does, even if D.C. Schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee likes to say that it is just an “excuse.”

Ailing urban school districts cannot be fixed by school educational “reforms” alone. The Harlem Children’s Zone, which wraps health, social and other services around kids from the time they are born, gets this.

The Obama administration, in a bow to the logic of the HCZ, this month gave one-year planning grants of up to $500,000 each to 21 neighborhoods to build Promise Neighborhoods, which, like the HCZ, would provide health and other services to kids.

Obama has requested $210 million in his fiscal 2011 budget, including $200 million to support implementation of Promise Neighborhood projects and $10 million for planning grants for new communities, according to the Education Department.

But the amount of money is minuscule compared with the money Obama is spending to push charter schools, standardized tests and common standards. Obama’s chief education initiative so far, Race to the Top, was a $4.3 billion competition for states that agreed to certain reforms, none of them about health and other services.

Administration officials talk about helping the whole child, but they haven’t matched the rhetoric with action.

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 1, 2010; 11:49 AM ET
Categories:  Race to the Top, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  harlem children's zone, hcz, obama, obama and eform, promise neighborhoods, race to the top, school reform  
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Ms. Strauss, Comparing the success of high-achieveing schools with low-income students to the anomaly of a man who smokes and drinks and lives to 95 is absurd! Great schools have great teachers who work harder, longer and develop more dynamic ways to engage students. You also make it sound as if low-income students are walking in on "their last legs" with no health plans and mental support. Loe-income students lack many of the resources at home that children of means have- computers, access to tutoring, and books- they don't lack brains! Your argument is flawed. There are many schools in this country that focus on the factors in the school that they do control and have had tremendous impact on student learning. You need to do some extensive research before you take such an outrageous position.

Posted by: teacher6402 | October 1, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Because of the myth of the American "classless society," its almost impossilbe to get people in power to admit there is poverty in American, unless it's to blame the poor for their own plight. It's no surprise, then, that programs to address the problems of peverty get little attention or funding, while programs to punish the poor for their poverty are wildly popular. In "The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison" (now in its 9th edition) Professor Jeffrey Reiman at American University suggests the criminal justice system is designed, not to protect society and its citizens, but, rather, to identify the poor as a dangerous underclass to be feared and controlled, while ignoring and even rewarding more harmful actions by the wealthy and powerful. His critique of criminla justice is easily expanded to other government programs, and eductation is an area where the same hidden goals exist. Ed. blogger Ira Socal regularly questions why poor children are edcated in strict, formal, scripted and punitive environments, while children in wealthy distrits are intellectually and creatively challenged by innovative, creative and progressive curricula. Is it because we choose to educate poor children in a way that is most likely to stifle their love of learning, thus justifying the view that they "don't care" about education or are "too lazy?"

Posted by: mcstowy | October 1, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

One reason for the confusion about "no excuses" schools that succeed is the fact that citizens tend to lump all low-income people together. But every teacher can tell you that there are two distinct groups of poor people. One group is poor in money but not in spirit. These individuals might have minimum wage jobs, or even be on welfare, but they have not abandoned their responsibilities as parents. They care for their children and have aspirations for them. They often see the relationship between education and later success in life and do what they can to give their children as many experiences as possible: trips to parks, libraries, museums etc. Basically these families offer their children a secure, enriched life. These children are often the well-behaved, high achievers in urban schools. When their children need medical care these parents find clinics to provide it.

The other group of poor people are mired in a culture of poverty. Within these families children live with drugs,abuse, crime and neglect. Children go without the most basic necessities and often depend on school for their breakfast and lunch. Many of these children are low-achievers who become aggressive as they get older. They are justifiably angry about their circumstances.

The "reformers" know that if they concentrate on the first group of children (the poor but cared for) they can make it look as though they have achieved miracles. Basically they just remove this group from the children who cause disruptions in class. This "trick" is definitely not new and has been used by parents and schools everywhere. It is the sleight of hand that has marked the current "reform."

Teachers, parents and other citizens who truly want to educate ALL children understand that extreme poverty must be addressed. There is a mountain of good research supporting this and we have known it for a long time.

As Valerie states, the Harlem Children's Zone has provided a legitimate way to help all children learn. Common sense should tell us that the achievement gap starts very early and must be addressed during the first three years of a child's life. These years could very well be the most important in a child's life. Also, there is wide aggreement among many educators and other citizens that this approach is worth pursuing in other cities.

AFT and NEA and other concerned groups must unite in demanding that educational tax dollars go to provide health, social services and early education to our neediest and youngest citizens instead of the pockets of "charter managers" and venture capitalists. I am not against charter schools but the money must be carefully monitored.

We've wasted educational dollars before but we are presently in the midst of an educational "reform" fraud that can waste billions while destroying public education.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 1, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

I guess the closer metaphor for a "no excuses" would be the person who is exposed to the stresses of poverty, poor nutrition, exposure to environmental risk factors like lead and other pollutants, few opportunities to exercise or experience nature and lives to be 95.

Posted by: TomHoffman | October 1, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Great schools have great teachers who work harder, longer and develop more dynamic ways to engage students.
Posted by: teacher6402
This is the usual garbage.

Great schools are the middle class and affluent class schools and not the poverty schools.

Only average teachers are required in these schools.

"Honey we should move to one of the worst poverty neighborhoods in DC so our children can go to their great schools."

The only public schools in DC that are good are the ones in affluent neighborhoods.

There is not one poverty public school that makes the rankings of great schools in the nation.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 1, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

President Obama

The poor can be educated if teachers simply do their job and my policies will force teachers to do their job.

Of course my administration can do nothing about the economy.

Remember vote for me in 2012 since I am forcing teachers to do their job.

I am only sorry that I will no longer in office by the time Americans see the results of my policies on public education.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 1, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Before this President was elected the national policy was that schools were responsible for the problems in public education.

Teachers and their unions were bashed by the public but this was not national policy.

Now with President Obama and Race To The Top the policy is that teachers and their unions are the cause of the problem and not the administrators or supervisors of school districts.

There is no reason for President Obama to mention poverty since the problem is now officially recognized as teachers not doing their jobs. The policies in place with Race To The Top force unions to stop interfering with the programs that will make teachers to do their job and stop creating the problems in public education.

The reality is that bashing teachers and their unions in now national policies.

One tires of these articles and comments from teachers who do not recognize that they need to convince their union and Democrats to select a new Democratic candidate for President in 2012.

It is either that or live with the consequences of the current national policy that the problem is teachers not doing their jobs.

Teachers should really think if in 2012 they want four more years as being seen as solely responsible for the problems of public education in this nation.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 1, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

It's time for hold Obama responsible and accountable for his foolish policy. Vote him out of office, he needs to be fired.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 1, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse

This entire reform movement, while laudable in its goals, bases itself on a piece of magical thinking called high expectations. Through having these expectations, students will suddenly achieve, poverty and lack of family support will be overcome, without the expense and political fallout of actually dealing with the families these students come from, and the environment they go home to every day. There is little proof that any of this actually works, but it is a simple answer that appeals to many people because it is so simple. The factors for success are controllable within the school itself. Since the current system isn't working, the fault must be within the school, not society at large. Whose fault is it? Why, it must be the teachers, as they do the work that isn't working.

Therefore, all we have to do to achieve success is fire the teachers, and hire other ones that follow the mantra of high expectations.

Those who find this approach simplistic and unsupported, aside from destructive, are simply obstructionists, are probably shills for the teachers unions. Once the unions are busted, administrators can fire anyone they don't like without any particular cause whenever they feel like it.

The current educational reform movement is really nothing but the religion of this moment. This, too, shall pass, but it may leave a great path of destruction in its wake when it founders once and for all, in the not too distant future, on static test scores and inconclusive results.

Posted by: thisone | October 1, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse


I agree about needing to reform (fire) our political leadership.

Those who hurt us (and this is some kickass hurt) dont deserve us.

Posted by: NYCee | October 2, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I see examples of what is said here, each and every day. It saddens and angers me that educational policy works against the kids. If one cares for these children, days must be spent on how to do right by these children "In spite of the system"

If the policy makers had to look into the eyes and faces of the kids they are hurting, I think everything would change. A few minutes in a school for a photo op, doesn't count.

Posted by: thefadels | October 3, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I think we should look at some of the reasons why schools in low-income and minority communities fail to produce better outcomes. They are under-resourced compared to other schools. Students attending these schools are held to lower standards for a variety of reasons: they come to school with presumed "deficits," their parents are under-educated and supposedly can't help them at home, they will fail so why set them up for failure, etc. I attended and taught in those types of schools and found that kids do have hope, but it is not nurtured. At the end of the day, good teaching can help kids learn to read, do math, and understand the arts and sciences. That's what schools are being asked to do -- they're not being asked to eradicate poverty or solve every social ill. Seems like a lot of folks, both reformers and their critics, are okay making pronouncements on behalf of these kids. I wonder how many attended and taught in title I schools. I think that's the real elephant in the room.

Posted by: rocco2 | October 4, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

"There are many schools in this country that focus on the factors in the school that they do control and have had tremendous impact on student learning. You need to do some extensive research before you take such an outrageous position"

What research are you referring to?

Posted by: dkeikoa | October 4, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

The poor can be educated. The question is whether or not they can be educated as well and as thoroughly as the middle class can *in the same percentages*. That is, if 30% of the middle class can be educated to excel in algebra, do we beat ourselves up if we can only get 10% of the poor to do the same? If 15% of the middle class never get competent in algebra, should we blame ourselves if 55% of the poor have the same limitation?

And of course, the other uncomfortable truth is that poor white kids don't seem to be as uneducable as poor black and Hispanic kids--and in fact, tend to do as well as wealthy blacks. But they don't do as well as middle class whites.

How much do we blame teachers for?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | October 4, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I just came back from my 6th time volunteering in a free dental event, this in Grundy Virginia, which is in the poorest county in Virginia, Buchanan. Yes, the school in which our event was held makes AYP. But being there and seeing the people we saw reminds me of how much poverty we have in this nation - when people have to come to free clinics to get basic dental care, we are in effect telling them we don't think they matter.

As a teacher, I know untreated dental problems interfere with health, nutrition and learning. Undiagnosed vision and hearing problems are a barrier to effective learning. All the charter schools in the world will not make a whit of difference if the basic human needs of our fellow citizens are not met.

I would posit what makes the difference in HCZ is not the charter school, but the wrap-around services, services that too many of our young people do not get.

Posted by: teacherken | October 4, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Excellent article.
On education, like most all other issues, Obama takes the solution off the table before he gets down to work.

Posted by: neaguy | October 4, 2010 11:43 PM | Report abuse

I know it's considered rude to mention it, but a principal reason the best predictors of success always turn out to be family income and parental education is that schools are afraid to test children's IQs, and these two variables are the closest proxy variables available. If IQ were in the data, there would be little independent effect from income/education; they're all highly correlated. Charles Murray published a study of all pairs of siblings (biological children of two married parents in non-poor families (he calls it his Utopian sample), from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth database, and found nearly as much educational inequality between siblings in different IQ ranges as in the full sample. Siblings, of course, have the same family status and are the same race, whatever it is.

Posted by: linsee1 | October 5, 2010 1:02 AM | Report abuse

United We Learn, a grassroots organization seeking greater equity in educational opportunities in Illinois, produced a video addressing the effects of education by zip code. What's most troubling is that the kids in poor communities have no idea what they're missing. As one teen confesses, she thought a 17 on her ACT was pretty good because it was among the highest in her school. Segregation and poverty impose walls which, in this economy, are less porous than ever.

You can view the video online at

Posted by: Alrio28 | October 7, 2010 11:44 PM | Report abuse

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