Refusing to Confront Reality: The Great Harm in Pretending Schools Can Close the Poverty Gap

Scientifically disproven years ago, the “Beat the Odds” myth is still the excuse of convenience for justifying claims that schools can single-handedly overcome poverty.
How it works is that statisticians comb through the test score distribution of high poverty and high minority schools, select those with the highest scores and exclaim, “See! Good teachers and schools can overcome the effects of poverty!”
In any reasonably large score distribution, there are tails (or outliers) of high and low-scoring schools. This is just elementary statistics. When researchers look at these outlier scores a couple of years later they almost invariably find the “beat the odds” schools are no longer exceptional. In Florida, Doug Harris found that only 1.1% of the so-called high flying schools were sustained high fliers. Marty Orland found that without comprehensive community support programs, high flier status is not sustained over time.
The “Beat the Odds” claimants have simply taken well-known statistical phenomena and called them “policy effects.”  
Nevertheless, as late as March 2011, President Obama, and former Governor Jeb Bush used Miami Central High School as a “Beat the Odds” stage prop. Bush declared “high expectations for students, hard-edge policies that focus schools on learning and an array of choices for families” will raise student achievement. Unfortunately, Miami Central’s 2010 reading proficiency rate was 16% -- down from 21% in the previous year.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, touting his proposals claimed, “School districts and their local partners . . .  are overcoming poverty and family breakdown to create high-performing schools.” Unfortunately, NBC Chicago says Duncan’s score gain claims were inflated and exaggerated.
Yet, a veritable industry has arisen founded on this myth. The Beat the Odds Institute sets forth their six principles of success and provides a glittering array of “Hosanna!” stories. McRel puts forth its recipe for success which includes the standard ingredients of orderly environments, challenging curriculum, leadership, use of data, professional development, collaboration and parental involvement. These notions represent a lot of “best practices.” But when presenting its success stories, McRel (like the others) is strong on anecdotes and weak on science. Schools that are well run do make a difference. But that is not the entire story.
While it is certainly true that many educators have been that pivotal person that turned a child’s life around, it’s a bit absurd to think that the effects of broken-homes, unemployment, impacted poverty and drug abuse will be cured by dint of a laser-like focus on improved teaching. The new phonics program (with accompanying standardized test) will not elevate the sights of the family struggling to put food on the table, pay the electric bill, buy gasoline and fling open the doors to higher educational opportunities.
There is great harm in this myth, that schools can do it all. It provides the excuse for politicians, vested interests and advocates to wrongly declare schools “failures.” It gives a false justification for firing the principals and teachers who work with our neediest. It tells us a complex society does not need to invest in its skills or its children. It serves as a moral cloak for actions that are technically unjustified -- as well as just plain wrong.
Instead, we must look with a broader vision. Former Bush assistant secretary of education Susan Neuman, an architect of the No Child left Behind law, does not extol the virtues of the law she helped create. Instead, in Changing the Odds for Children at Risk, she talks about the necessity of strengthening families, early childhood education, childcare, the community and after-school programs. We must combine inside-the-school excellence with companion outside-the-school efforts. Heather Schwartz’ study of economically integrated housing in Montgomery County, Maryland showed a forty percent of a standard deviation gain in mathematics scores by breaking down impacted poverty housing patterns. That’s a very large effect! When needy children were provided adequate school financial supports, large gains were registered.
There are many people that say we must continue the NCLB practice of “shining the light” on schools that have low scores for children of color and those with economic needs. Schools must continue to be held accountable for these children’s test scores, they insist. Otherwise, schools will cover-up the problem. Unfortunately, shining the light for the past quarter-century has not moved our collective social conscience enough to properly support these schools.
But to shine the light only on the schools is to leave the greater void in darkness. The achievement gap is more the symptom than the problem. The poor performance of our neediest children reflects the paucity and failure of our wage, labor, employment, tax and health care policies more than it does the effectiveness of our schools.
 

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William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year....