10/15/2010 01:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Doomed By Poverty?

"We need to accept reality," writes Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post blog, Answer Sheet.

Strauss says,

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.

Strauss concedes that schools can "make some difference in some circumstances" for low-income children and shouldn't "get a pass for failing to try." But why try very hard if it's hopeless?

Don't assume poor children are doomed to fail in school, responds Education Sector's Kevin Carey on The Quick and the Ed. He writes that more children are living in poverty in Washington, D.C., but test scores have risen:

The rate of black fourth graders in DC scoring above Basic on the NAEP math exam increased from 45 to 50 percent. For low-income students, the rate increased from 43 to 48 percent. Both increases were statistically significant. For low-income 8th graders, 28 to 34 percent. For black 8th graders, 31 to 36 percent. 4th grade reading? 29 to 35 percent for low-income students, 33 to 37 percent for black students. (8th grade reading scores increased too, although not at statistically significant level.)

In other words, Michelle Rhee said poverty was no excuse for her own performance, and then delivered.

In a TNR Symposium in March, Carey nailed the issue:

Of course hunger, mobility, stress, and poor health are barriers to learning.

But let me put it this way: Say we have a group of low-income minority students with chronic health problems whose parents are unemployed. They can attend one of two schools. The first has crumbling facilities, no coherent curriculum, indifferent leadership, and a poorly trained staff of unmotivated teachers who can never be fired. We suspect that academic results in this school are very bad, but we don't know for sure because the only available data comes from the school itself, which reports that students are doing "fine, all things considered."

The second school has new facilities, a rich curriculum, and a strong principal. Teachers are well-trained and work in a cooperative, mutually supportive environment. Excellent teaching is rewarded, and there is no tolerance for incompetence. Student results on national criterion-referenced tests are reported to the community every year.

Do you care which school those children attend? Or are you indifferent, because the differences between them are "likely to be overwhelmed by the impact of unemployment"?

If poverty is destiny, then schools really do get a pass for failure. Those exceptional schools are just freaks of nature, not experiments that can be studied, analyzed and emulated.

I have a modest proposal: Any school whose staff has accepted "reality" -- that we can't make a difference for our students -- should replace its teachers with aides who can supervise recess, sports, art and music. Let the kids have fun before they start their grim, hopeless adult lives. Offer parents a voucher good at a no-excuses school that teaches reading, writing, 'rithmetic, history, science, etc.

I'd bet most parents, including low-income, poorly educated parents, would choose a real school, if they had a choice. I bet most students would choose the real school.