THE BLOG

The Problem Is You

03/23/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2015

People who blame low-performing schools on poverty tend to make this argument to like-minded people in academic or on-line environments where the poor people they are talking about are usually out of earshot. They should try making this argument directly to low-income parents and see what kind of reaction they get.

We conducted focus groups with African-American parents to gauge their views on public education and various efforts to improve schools. When we shared information about achievement gaps, the Black parents felt under attack.

"Don't just talk about our kids. Talk about all kids," they said. They didn't want to be singled out or blamed for the shortcomings of the school system. But when people say that poverty is a barrier to learning, they are essentially blaming poor parents for their personal choices and social deficits.

They cite studies showing that low-income parents have limited vocabularies and less talk around the house so their children do not hear enough words before the age of 5. They assert that many low-income parents don't have enough books in their homes and don't spend enough time reading to their children so their kids show up to kindergarten already behind.

They point to the increase in single parenting and the absence of a second income to help support the family and a second parent to help raise the children. And of course, they highlight violence in the home and in the community and the resulting emotional traumas that make it harder for children to learn.

Essentially, the message of the poverty narrative is: "There is very little wrong with your schools. The principals and teachers are doing their best under difficult circumstances and just need more support. The real problem is you."

Behind this narrative is an insidious strategy on the part of some to escape responsibility for educating children at risk. Federal law requires testing of all children during their academic career and publicizing the results by state, district, school and, most importantly, subgroup. The test results clearly show that low-income minority children are further behind than other sub-groups.

One response is to throw up our hands in despair, lament the conditions we don't control, like crime, joblessness and single parent families, and lobby for more resources. The law, on the other hand, says we should require schools to improve and if they don't there must be consequences. Maybe the curriculum changes or the principal is replaced. Maybe some teachers are replaced. Maybe the whole school is shut down and converted to something new.

Are these actions unfair to educators? Is it unfair to hold teachers and principals accountable for low-performing schools if the real problem is outside their control?

Certainly, no one disputes the impact of poverty on a child's social and emotional health and ability to learn. We all recognize that teachers in high-poverty schools are confronted with non-educational challenges every day. No one expects poor children to perform like middle-class children right out of the box.

But it seems reasonable to expect at least a year's growth in learning for each year of school. And, it should be our goal to get more than a year's growth so that poor children can eventually catch up or at least narrow the gaps.

And when some low-income schools successfully close achievement gaps, we should learn from them and replicate as much as we can. Surely we can agree on growth goals and work together to find a fair and responsible way to measure progress.

Lately, arguments for accountability have run into a buzz saw of self-interest. Some administrators and principals who worry about their jobs have put a single-minded focus on raising reading and math scores to the exclusion of other subjects, driving the over-testing phenomenon that has a lot of people upset.

Meanwhile, some teachers unions have organized campaigns against testing. They claim they want to restore "joy" in the classroom, but their real agenda is to evade accountability; they never resisted testing until it was tied to consequences. Their allies in this cause are middle-class parents who don't think their kids need to be tested at all and have begun opting-out of annual tests.

The stakes for each of these groups vary. Administrators and principals can certainly get fired and in large urban districts, many do. In fact, the average tenure of a large urban superintendent is about three years. In some states and districts, teachers can also lose their jobs for under-performance, but it rarely happens to tenured teachers, despite new evaluation systems linked, in part, to test scores.

For middle-class parents, however, the stakes are pretty low. If they don't like their schools, they can demand change and get action. They can demand fewer tests, many of which are administered voluntarily at the local level. They can also move to communities with better schools or just send their kids to private school.

But for the kids at risk, the stakes are highest of all. Take away annual test scores and we won't know how far behind they really are. Without the data, we can't make the reformers' case for change or the educator's case for more funding.

So while the poverty narrative provides a convenient excuse for middle-class parents to resist testing and for unions to resist accountability, it also indicts poor parents and essentially tells them to stop focusing on improving their schools, and instead focus on improving their lives. No wonder they don't say it to their faces.

Peter Cunningham is Executive Director of Education Post, a non-partisan communications organization dedicated to building support for student-focused improvements in public education from preschool to high school graduation. He is a former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. He served in the Obama administration.