A Non-Response on Education and Poverty


Rhode Island Association of School Principals director Joseph Crowley has a sort of response in today’s Providence Journal to my recent op-ed taking him and other education insiders to task for striving to redirect blame for abysmal scores on the PARCC tests and generally tepid results by other measures.  I call the essay “a sort of response” because it skirts the real point:

There are those who believe schools alone can overcome the impact of stresses and toxic lead on children living in poverty. There are even educators, through their dedication, who believe they can overcome what poverty has created. Speaking at the University of Rhode Island in 2009, Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, suggested this is a grave error, since schools, by themselves, have never anywhere in the world been able to completely close the learning gaps between poorer and richer students.

The “accountability” that I find lacking in education doesn’t imply that schools can overcome underlying problems that children have (although it’s telling that Crowley dismisses his members’ abilities so dramatically).  People have to be held accountable for taking resources on the promise that they can provide a service that they cannot, in fact, provide.

Crowley overstates his case by several degrees.  Poverty and lead paint don’t explain abysmal scores in the suburbs or how urban Boston outscores our state, overall.  Pointing that out doesn’t mean there’s a cookie-cutter fix for every school and every student.

Suburban schools that are failing their students should be held accountable and made to up their game or lose their students.  Urban and rural schools, where some significant portion of students’ difficulties are problems that supersede their educational experience, should be held accountable for taking resources that would be better spent resolving those other, prior problems.

I do agree with Crowley in one respect, though:

We can stop assigning children of poverty to schools with upwards of 90 percent of like children.

Such a change can be accomplished by providing parents with opportunities to choose the schools that their children attend, both public schools in other districts and private schools.  That decision will help to involve parents in their children’s education, allowing them to address their children’s unique needs, and it will make it more likely that the students remaining in a failing school have similar, non-educational problems for which services could perhaps be provided within or around the school building.