"If We Agree on Poverty, What Next?
("then we must now admit the failure of bureaucratic education reform based on the accountability paradigm.")
If we are to take Meyer and Ripley at their word, and if we can fairly extrapolate their confessions to the entirety of the "No Excuses" Reformers, then we must ask some important questions and make some serious changes in both how we debate education reform and conduct education reform.
• Why do we persist in and even increase our dependence on testing, labeling, and punishing students and teachers when we know that standardized tests remain significantly biased by socioeconomic status (linked to parental income and level of education), race, and gender (Santelices & Wilson, 2010; Spelke, 2005)? As long as we continue to evaluate student achievement, teacher quality, and school effectiveness by a tool proven again and again to be primarily a reflection of social conditions beyond the control of the people and institutions being judged, we will never find any common ground—regardless of any concession by reformers about the impact of poverty on children's lives and learning.
• Why do we insist on claiming "miracle" and representing outliers as normal? Just as one example, consider the rush to make claims by misusing data in New Jersey. Yet, when a blogger examines the claims and the data carefully, the initial claim disappears, and the result is corrosive for both any further claims of success or any hope for real education reform.
• Why have we created, maintained, and perpetuated an education system that parallels and creates a stratification of students built on measuring, labeling, and sorting—in other words, what sense does having an education system that mirrors our society make if our belief is that those same schools will reform society? If we are to embrace and support public education as a vehicle for social reform, then we must create schools that are unlike our society. We have never done this, and nothing being placed on the table today by "No Excuses" Reformers is offering anything other than schools that perpetuate the status quo of the current U.S.; in fact, a central goal of "no excuses" ideology is using education to instill middle class norms. By definition, then, normalizing is counter to transformation. Schools that transform society ask teachers and students to confront, question, and change the world—not conform to it.
• Why are our reform strategies mired in the same formula—standards, testing, and accountability—since the evidence on the effectiveness of this paradigm (ironically) suggests that it is ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst? James Traub in 2000 carefully and clearly made a case for the ineffectiveness of traditional bureaucratic approaches to school reform. But what followed was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), what was called at the time a massive expansion of the bureaucratic approach to reform. After nearly a decade of NCLB—fifty separate and unsuccessful experiments with accountability—Hout and Elliott have shown that accountability remains essentially ineffective—or at least ineffective if measured against the (misguided) promises that came with our commitment to NCLB (closing achievement gaps, reducing drop-out rates, increasing raw international test rankings). If, as Meyer suggests ("thirty years of 'war on poverty' (vis Lyndon Johnson, 1964) and stultifyingly little school improvement to show for it"), we must admit the failure of social welfare in the mid-twentieth century, then we must now admit the failure of bureaucratic education reform based on the accountability paradigm.
• If we believe schools are revolutionary, a door to an equitable society, why do we maintain a school system that privileges affluent students by placing them in the smallest classes with the most experienced and qualified teachers (see the disproportionate by socioeconomic status access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs as well as the correlation of SAT scores and socioeconomic status) while promoting the experimentation of teacher assignments (Teach for America) with the student populations fairing less well in our schools—children in poverty, children of color, special needs students, and English language learners? Regardless of the words any of us, regardless of the slogans, the patterns of the system we create and tolerate reveal where our true commitments lie.
• And finally (this to me is the greatest question that must be answered) what logic or evidence supports the implied message of "poverty is not destiny": That poverty is within the power of people living in poverty to change, that the affluent are somehow not culpable for or powerful enough to change the conditions of inequity? Ample evidence shows that the U.S. is one of the most inequitable democracies in the world (a ranking we choose to ignore while dwelling on PISA), but we seem determined to remain committed to narratives of equity in the face of evidence revealing inequity. Until we examine, as I noted above about educational outcomes, the sources of social inequity, we are likely never to address the impact of poverty on the lives of children and their families."