When Obama’s No Child Waiver Gambit — and Common Core Foes — Perpetuate the Poverty Myth
This morning, the legendary Howard Fuller, whose strident and steadfast effort for systemic reform, declared how encouraged he was by “the potential of our kids” and yet “discouraged by our lack of political will to do whatever it takes for them.” This is clear when it comes to how so many traditionalists (and even, sadly, some reformers) still cling on to — and encourage — the Poverty Myth of Education that condemns so many of our children to educational, economic, and social despair. And it is especially clear when one considers how those who are otherwise strong in supporting systemic reform — especially the Obama administration in its effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and the accountability provisions that have spurred so many successful reform efforts so far, and those opposing the effort to enact Common Core reading and math standards, and – are incidentally aiding and abetting such mythmaking.
As this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast made clear, far too many people cling to the belief — augmented by questionable theorizing and deficit thinking from the likes of Ruby Payne, Betty Hart, Todd Risley, and Annette Lareau – that poverty is destiny, that kids from poor households come from debilitating home conditions and thus, are unable to succeed educationally, and that poor families are trapped in a “culture of poverty” (and thus unable to actually understand the importance of high-quality education). The evidence, especially success of schools serving mostly-poor kids such as those run by charter school operators such as KIPP along with those such as nine operations in Ohio profiled in a report released earlier this month by Public Agenda, prove lie to such thinking. But poverty myth-makers stubbornly cling to those views as if their Godly inspired.
But why would they give it up. Forget for a moment that the Poverty Myth succors their defense of failed, amoral policies that are an underlying cause of the nation’s education crisis. It is hard to beat back the long-held beliefs of these traditionalist hen otherwise-sensible reformers engage in efforts that end up playing into such thinking.
This is clear when one looks at the year-long effort by the President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to allow 34 states and the District of Columbia to evade No Child and its Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, which require states to measure how well districts and schools are doing in improving the achievement of poor (as well as minority) children, and hold them accountable for failing to do the work. Dropout Nation has sharply criticized the effort since Duncan launched it, for numerous reasons, one of them being that it allows states to define proficiency down by allowing them to set supposedly “ambitious” and yet “achievable” goals for improving student achievement for poor children that are anything but. Dropout Nation readers have learned this summer, states such as Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida are allowing districts to do little for the black, Latino, Asian, and Native children in their care by setting abysmally low achievement targets through a policy called Cut the Gap in Half. The moves by Virginia and Florida, in particular, have already stoked the ire of civil rights activists and more-sensible reformers on the ground; in the case of the Old Dominion, the outcry even forced the Obama Administration to require the state to set higher expectations.
The proficiency targets states are setting for poor children with the Obama administration’s blessing, have gotten less attention. And yet, they are equally unsettling. In Delaware, for example, districts are only required to ensure that 76 percent of poor students attending their schools are proficient in reading by 206-2017, six points lower than what is expected for students overall, nearly nine points lower than the levels expected for white students, and 15 points lower than for Asian students. Washington State districts are only expected to ensures that just 75 percent of poor middle-schoolers are proficient in reading by 2016-2017, several points lower than expected for students overall, and as much as 10 points lower than the proficiency levels expected for White and Asian peers.
Tennessee, whose low proficiency targets for black and Latino students are especially shameful given the otherwise admirable reform efforts being undertaken by Gov. Bill Haslam and his education czar, Kevin Huffman, has set even lower proficiency targets for poor and minority kids. The Volunteer State only expect district to make sure that 56 percent of their poorest children in grades three through eight are proficient in math by 2016-2017; this is lower than the abysmal 57 percent proficiency level expected for kids condemned to special ed ghettos. It is also seven points lower for Volunteer State students overall in those grades, 11 points lower than the proficiency levels for white students, and 22 points lower than for Asian students.
The administration, along with otherwise-sensible reformers such as Anne Hyslop of New America Foundation, and the Education Trust (which had to go into crisis management mode after its role in developing the Cut the Gap in Half approach was revealed in October, when Florida came under fire for setting the low proficiency levels) have defended this approach. They have argued that the only reason why more-sensible colleagues and civil rights activists oppose it is because “it feels wrong” or the “optics” (or appearance) is bad. What they fail to understand that setting low expectations for the poorest children (along with those from minority backgrounds) doesn’t just feel wrong or look bad. It is wrong and it is worse. Although states which have been granted waivers are required to adopt “college and career-ready” curricula standards in reading and math, it is a meaningless condition because federal law prohibits the U.S. Department of Education from laying out exactly what these standards should be (lest it be accused of crafting a national curricula). There is also the fact that cut scores on the underlying tests used to measure proficiency are already below the high bar set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the leading tests of international student progress, in part because traditionalists (with help from middle-class suburban households unaware of the consequences of low expectations for their own kids) don’t believe they should be held responsible for the achievement of students under their watch, especially those from the poorest backgrounds. As a result, the proficiency targets are effectively lower than they should be.
All this, in turn, hits upon an important reality: Levels of proficiency set by states are more than just a series of targets. As with so much public policy, it is a clear communication in action of the expectations we have for our society, especially when it comes to ensuring that every child gets a high-quality education. When states set the bar low, especially for our poorest children, the adults who run traditional districts and those who teach in their classrooms won’t even bother to go above and beyond. In fact, they won’t even go beyond the low bar. One can easily surmise from these low proficiency levels that state leaders don’t expect teachers and school leaders to do very much for poor children — and don’t likely expect much from those kids themselves. In allowing states to set such low levels, Obama and Duncan (along with the bureaucrats charged with making decisions on their behalf) don’t expect much from poor children either.
This plays into the arguments of poverty myth-makers who can then argue with justification that these reformers can’t possibly argue for systemically overhauling American public education when they themselves don’t think that high-quality teaching and curricula can help poor children succeed. You can’t support defining proficiency down — and setting lower expectations for schools and districts to do well by all of our children — without appearing to betray your convictions. And allowing states to define proficiency down for our poorest kids epitomizes such unwillingness to match principles to action.
But such betrayal of convictions isn’t just a problem for the Obama administration and supporters of its No Child waiver gambit. Opponents of Common Core standards enacted in 46 states and the District of Columbia, a group that includes such otherwise-admirable reformers as Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute, Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas, and Williamson Evers of the Hoover Institution, face the same problem too.
Over the past couple of months, Common Core foes have stepped up their efforts to thwart implementation of the standards by engaging in the kind of misinformation campaign that one would only expect of the most-rabid traditionalists. The latest example came last week courtesy of the Washington Post, which detailed concerns among English teachers that they would have to focus almost-exclusively on nonfiction texts (as well as on the kind of fact-based writing which most adults partake as part of their daily lives) than on works of fiction such as The Great Gatsby (and expository writing that, save for the few who manage to ever get published, is limited to personal diaries). From the perspective of Common Core foes, these concerns prove their longstanding contentions that Common Core will weaken the quality of learning in classrooms. Which in turn, proves their other argument: That Common Core is hardly better (and in many cases, inferior) than state standards currently in place.
The fact that Common Core actually emphasizes both the reading of fiction and nonfiction (and pushes for teachers to improve the quality of book choices they make) belies the contention that the standards weaken quality of learning. In fact, as it turns out, the concerns over the amount of fiction and nonfiction books being offered lie mostly with the disdain for nonfiction among many reading instructors (who haven’t figured out that the cannon of great books includes such nonfiction texts as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast), and the incompetence of school leaders (who are too lazy to pay attention to what is required under the standards and thus offer teachers shoddy directions on what to teach). The standards themselves allow for wide enough and yet reasonable interpretation for anyone to know that the “informational texts” called for by Common Core actually includes books such as On Liberty as well as editorials and op-eds, each of which offer arguments that children should learn to dissect. Considering the role of nonfiction books in shaping how we think and what we believe, especially in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society, there is more need than ever for our poorest kids (and all kids) to read nonfiction. Given that far too many teachers lack the skills needed to provide high-quality reading instruction — and that the nation’s ed schools are failing mightily in training aspiring teachers before they leave the classroom (including National Council on Teacher Quality’s conclusion that only 11 of 71 ed schools it surveyed in 2006 adequately trained future teachers in reading) — also proves lie to the arguments of Common Core opponents.
Meanwhile Common Core opponents are stuck with another inconvenient fact: That all of our kids — especially the poorest of them — are getting low-quality curricula that hardly prepares them for success in school or in life. As the American Institutes for Research reported two years ago in its study on state standards, only two states had math standards that were equal to those of the seven best-performing countries in that subject. The consequences of these low standards are borne hardest of all by our poorest children. Forty-eight percent of low-income 4th-graders, and 37 percent of poor eighth-graders read Below Basic proficiency on the 2011 NAEP. Add in the fact that poor children and their families are also the ones that struggle the most with Zip Code Education policies (including restrictions on school choice), and are often denied opportunities to access comprehensive college-preparatory curricula that is available through Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, the consequences of low-quality standards hit them even harder than the rest of our children.
Certainly Common Core isn’t nearly the cure-all that many of those who support it declare it to be. At the same time, the standards are a key step in overhauling American public education by finally pushing for comprehensive college-preparatory standards all children — especially our poorest kids — need and deserve. As with proficiency targets, standards are more than just benchmarks of what kids should learn. As with so much public policy, it is a clear communication in action of the expectations we have for our society, especially when it comes to ensuring that every child gets a high-quality education. Through Common Core, we are basically making plain what is we know is so: That all kids, regardless of background, can master college-preparatory curricula, and should get high-quality teaching, nurturing school cultures, and strong school leaders.
By opposing Common Core, opponents such as Greene, Evers, and Stergios find themselves giving comfort to the thinking of the very Poverty Myth thinking (along with other traditionalist policies and practices) that they also decry. After all, among those who oppose the standards are folks such as Marion Brady, who argues that implementing the standards is a waste of time because of his belief that high-quality education cannot overcome the effects of poverty (which are often as much a consequence of American public education’s failures as of the rest of society). As Foundation for Excellence in Education research czar Matthew Ladner noted earlier this week in his own piece on Common Core, reformers should not “labor in the defense of the indefensible status quo”. And giving succor to poverty mythmaking is absolutely unacceptable.
The school reform movement can no longer give aid and comfort to the Poverty Myth. Abandoning the No Child waiver gambit and ending opposition to Common Core standards would do plenty to force traditionalists to end their amoral and impoverished views of our poorest children.