03/09/2012 01:55 pm ET Updated May 09, 2012

Superintendents, the Correct Answer Is "D -- All of the Above"

It's hard to imagine public officials for whom child poverty and concentrated child poverty, poses a clearer obstacle than for superintendents of large urban school districts. A team of researchers in Chicago found that, in some of the city's most troubled schools, as many as one in four children had reported cases of abuse or neglect, and up to 40 percent were in foster care. Yet these education leaders' public statements make them appear oddly removed from the realities faced by the many students living in and near poverty who enter their school doors each day, and by those students' teachers.

At last week's public forum on big-city school reform at American University, the mayors and superintendents of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles congratulated one another (and Education Secretary Arne Duncan) on their increasingly tough stances on teacher and principal accountability. They asserted that, by raising stakes and expectations for low-income children and their teachers, they will improve achievement (conveniently sidestepping the fact that no such improvement has yet to materialize in any of the three cities). Mayor Bloomberg went beyond defending "test prep" to praise it. All of this was in the context of media reports of botched test scores in New York City, of teacher evaluation promoter Bill Gates' protest against their public release, and of calculations by one mathematician showing that New York's Value-Added scores are as reliable as if they had been randomly-assigned.

Surely test-based evaluations are not the only tool in these leaders' policy boxes. (Arne Duncan is certainly familiar with the comprehensive set of strategies promoted by the Broader Bolder Approach to alleviate poverty-related impediments to learning; he's an original signatory to BBA's statement.) In fact, when posed to them via a question from the audience, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel stated that "there's no greater investment than after-school programs," and all three agreed with moderator Andrea Mitchell's assertion that "investments in children before they enter kindergarten are arguably the single most effective one we can make." If the question had been posed as, "To improve the academic achievement of low-income students, we must a) improve teacher effectiveness, b) expand early childhood education, c) make after-school and summer enrichment available to all, or d) all of the above," it sounds like they would have checked "D."

Yet not one seemed to think these "great investments" merited consideration alongside the in-school reforms, and none acknowledged that research shows both per-kindergarten and summer enrichment to have much greater effects on student achievement than does improving teacher effectiveness.

Collectively, these superintendents oversee the education of 2.5 million U.S. children. In New York City, three of four students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In Chicago public schools, the child poverty rate is 85 percent, and Los Angeles recently raised the poverty threshold for Title I eligibility to preserve funds for the most severely struggling schools. So long as their leaders continue to rely on crude and punitive evaluation methods, these schools are likely to lose more good teachers than they gain. And so long as education policies continue to neglect the myriad out-of-school obstacles these students face, they will keep missing class days because of uncontrolled asthma, to lose focus in class because they can't see the blackboard for lack of glasses or to be unable to concentrate because they are hungry.

Superintendents Walcott, Brizard, and Deasy, it's clear that you know these truths. Start checking "D" or you won't be the only ones failing.