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Schools Can't Manage Poverty

Ohanian Comment: There is much to like in this essay, but for the life of me I can't understand why Patrick Walsh would say this: From what I heard, I liked and respected Duncan, as did most of my colleagues.

Liked and respected the man who is leading the charge to destroy public education?

Go figure.

No wonder we can't mount a resistance movement.

By Patrick Walsh

Last week Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave the keynote address at the back-to-school convocation for the 1,200 teachers in the Alexandria, Va., public school system. The meeting was held at T.C. Williams, the high school that Duncan's Department of Education labeled as "persistently low achieving." Why? Our failure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the No Child Left Behind requirement that each of six subgroups of students Γ’€” black, white, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, special education and English language learners Γ’€” must attain higher scores in tests each year until in 2014 all children in all schools across the country reach a 100% pass rate.

We teachers were told that Duncan would take questions after his speech. Being an English teacher, I prepared a little analogy to ask him about the rationale for labeling schools on the basis of Adequate Yearly Progress. Duncan's biographies often mention that he was co-captain of the Harvard basketball team during the 1986-87 season, his senior year. I reminded him that that team won only seven games and lost 17. Such a record, I told Duncan, was the mark of a "persistently low achieving" team, which made no "annual yearly progress." I meant the analogy to be humorous, but teachers sitting near Duncan said he didn't seem to take it that way.

A basketball analogy

I went on to say that I assumed Duncan and his teammates did the best they could with the talent they had, and that no matter what improvements they tried to make, it would be foolish to think their team could ever reach the highest benchmark in college basketball Γ’€” the Final Four. Like his basketball team, I said, many schools are doing the best they can with the students they have, and it is unfair to label such schools as failing.

Duncan answered that all schools are not doing the best they can and ended our little go around with the cliché that "poverty is not destiny." Anyone who has taught in public schools as long as I have Γ’€” I've been at T.C. since 1970 Γ’€” would agree. We have seen former students raised in the most impoverished circumstances go on to the best colleges in the country and then shine in various professions. But those wonderful success stories are the exceptions that prove the rule that the effects of poverty Γ’€” especially the multigenerational poverty that we see in so many of Alexandria's schools Γ’€” cannot be overcome by schools alone.

As J. Glenn Hopkins, president of Alexandria's Hopkins House, which runs a nationally recognized preschool and provides other services to low-income families, notes, "The real problem is that education officials don't realize Γ’€” or won't admit Γ’€” that the education gap is symptomatic of a social gap." He says student achievement is deeply affected by issues of family, income and class, things schools have little control over. "Education bureaucrats naively assume that if they throw in a little tutoring and mentoring and come up with some program they can claim as their own, the gap will close."

From what I heard, I liked and respected Duncan, as did most of my colleagues. There are few government officials more passionate about improving public education. He attributes much of his success to the teachers he had at the prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, but I doubt those teachers had half the effect that his home life had: growing up with a father, a renowned University of Chicago professor who read the classics to his children, and a mother who dedicated her life to education of the poor.

Unfortunately, a form of liberal idealism often works against the best interest of schools, an idealism that puts a target on the back of teachers by holding them accountable for making up for all the academic and social deficiencies that children of the urban underclass bring with them into school. Such a view sees children brought up in multigenerational poverty as victims of discrimination rotting in poorly funded schools staffed by the dregs of the teaching profession.

No lack of resources

Nothing could be further from the truth in Alexandria, which spends more money per student than any jurisdiction in the Washington metropolitan area. T.C. Williams, Alexandria's only high school, is housed in a new $100 million building, where every student is given a free laptop to keep for the year.

Still, the convocation last week had all the feel of a civil rights rally demanding equal treatment for minorities. During his speech, Duncan repeated the mantra that equal education is the "civil rights issue of our time."

And yet Duncan's people have destroyed the reputation of some great schools where minorities are the majority, such as Mount Vernon Elementary in Alexandria. Mount Vernon is 74% minority, many of whom come from homes where English is not the first language. At the same time, there is a core of kids from homes with highly educated, professional parents. By labeling Mount Vernon a failing school, Duncan risks scaring off such parents who might well end up putting their children in private schools or leaving for "less diverse" suburbs.

Just as it would be unfair to label Duncan's Harvard basketball team a failure, it also is unfair to publically label an entire school, and by extension its best students, as failing because some of its most disadvantaged students didn't reach the same benchmark as those students whose upbringing has given them every advantage they needed to shine.

Patrick Welsh is an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors

— Patrick Walsh
USA Today


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