In his spring 2013 commencement address at Morehouse College, Barack Obama offered a compelling message:
Obama said he was lucky to have his mother and grandparents, who raised him, and said that under different circumstances, he could have ended up in prison or unemployed.
‘I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family — and that motivates me,’ he said.
While he urged graduates to not use race as an excuse for their failures, he acknowledged that the ‘bitter legacy’ of discrimination still exists in America.
‘At some point in life as an African American you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by,’ he said.
Coming from the first African American president in the U.S., this call for personal grit and refusing to make excuses speaks to a central narrative found in the current education reform debate.
Bill Cosby has offered a similar message, prompting even supporters of Cosby to raise concerns:
There are some obvious concerns with Cosby’s rhetoric. First is the justifiable, and quite accurate concern that his critiques ignore structural inequality and place too much emphasis on individual responsibility. Then there is the fear that such commentary might be used as weaponry for conservatives in ways that both blacks and whites, conservatives and liberals, have historically used black deviance to achieve ideological and policy goals. Indeed, when conservative mogul Rupert Murdoch (chairman of the News Corporation, which owns the New York Post that Cosby published in) cosigned with Cosby’s comments, you know it’s not a good look.
However, messages of grit and “no excuses” remain prominent among advocates of education reform committed to charter schools and other market-based policies as well as the growing standards and high-stakes components of the accountability era.
For example, Steve Perry continues to attack teachers unions as “roaches” and relentlessly tweets his message of grit, “no excuses,” and claims of his own success as an educator (although these claims have been debunked, challenged as side-show, and exposed as misleading). Perry’s Twitter feed (@DrStevePerry), in fact, represents well the dominant themes running through the most widely embraced attitudes about race and poverty in the U.S., beliefs that have been driving education reform for three decades:
If America’s ed failures were just about ‘poverty’ then why is the entire country at the bottom of international competition?
I’m tired of this solutionless dribble… Poverty, waaa.. Privitaization.. waaa Corportaions, waaa Since when do you work for free!
Poverty has been w use since beginning of recorded history. Yet then as now ppl make it out thru education. Good education = end 2 poverty.
If you believe poverty is stopping your students from learning please turn in your letter of resignation today before the end of business.
I believe that Dr. King’s dream and Prez Obama’s hope are one in the same. We can overcome because we do overcome. Education is the key.
The only people who believe that poverty can’t be overcome are people who have never overcome poverty.
Great educators don’t whine when parents expect that they’ll deliver an education. They don’t blame poverty. They accept responsibility.
Stop saying poverty is more important than good teachers. You’re wrong & you sound nuts. There’s NO causal relationship.
The rhetoric is compelling, but are the claims accurate?
Is the U.S. at the bottom of international comparisons, and if so, is poverty irrelevant to those rankings? Carnoy and Rothstein have shown:
In a new EPI report, What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?, we disaggregate international student test scores by social class and show that the commonplace condemnation of U.S. student performance on such tests is misleading, exaggerated, and in many cases, based on misinterpretation of the facts. Ours is the first study of which we are aware to compare the performance of socioeconomically similar students across nations….
Yet a careful analysis of the PISA database shows that the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged children is actually smaller in the United States than it is in similar countries. The achievement gap in the United States is larger than it is in the very highest scoring countries, but even then, many of the differences are small….
The share of disadvantaged students in the U.S. sample was larger than their share in any of the other countries we studied. Because test scores in every country are characterized by a social class gradient—students higher in the social class scale have better average achievement than students in the next lower class—U.S. student scores are lower on average simply because of our relatively disadvantaged social class composition [emphasis added].
In 2010, Mel Riddile exposed the same flawed rankings that ignore poverty, concluding:
Truthfully, you and I know all too well that Secretary Duncan, who led schools in Chicago, is aware of the relationship between poverty and student achievement, but he doesn’t trust us enough to tell us the truth. He is afraid that we will use poverty as an excuse and that we will forget about our disadvantaged students. Ironically, by not acknowledging poverty as a challenge to be overcome, Duncan is forgetting about our disadvantaged students. Duncan needs to deliver the message that all our students deserve not only access to an education, but access to an excellent education. He needs to repeatedly remind us that, when it comes to school improvement, it’s poverty not stupid.
Which is a more powerful influence on measurable student outcomes, poverty or teacher quality? Di Carlo explains about the evidence:
But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).
Is poverty destiny in the U.S.? As I have examined before, research from 2012, “A Rotting Apple” (Schott Foundation for Public Education) and “Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools” (Brookings), confirms that the socioeconomic status of any child’s home is a strong predictor of that child’s access to high- or low-quality schools. While not a politically appealing statement, in the U.S., poverty is destiny—and so is race.
Is education the ticket out of poverty? Based on Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, Matt Bruenig has concluded:
So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!
Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.
Yet, President Obama has committed to arguing that African Americans must work twice as hard to succeed, while his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offers this about the rise of segregation in U.S. schools:
So whatever we can do to continue to increase integration in a voluntary way—I don’t think you could force these kinds of things—we want to be very, very thoughtful and to try to do more in that area quite frankly.
Duncan, as the very public face and voice of Obama’s education agenda, has echoed that school reform is the civil rights issue of our time, and Duncan tends to pepper his education talks with civil rights rhetoric. But in the end, even as the federal government does force many policies onto states, the Secretary is careful to note “I don’t think you could force these kinds of things.”
Ultimately—even when messages come from prominent African American leaders, entertainer, and educators—the “no excuses” effort to ignore race and poverty serve only the interests of politicians and the affluent. How?
If poverty is the result of individual laziness and thus can be overcome by simply doubling down on effort, then the responsibility of overcoming poverty lies entirely in people who are poor.
Politicians and the affluent, then, are absolved of their culpability in the existence of poverty or their need to be proactive in eradicating poverty. Political, cultural, and educational leaders can continue to float on the breeze of rhetoric and never stoop to confronting the evidence they are wrong or that they need to act in any way.
Another powerful message beneath ignoring race and poverty is that the affluent deserve their affluence just as the impoverished deserve their poverty, as detailed by Chris Arnade:
When you’re wealthy you make mistakes. When you are poor you go to jail.
Yes, it is like comparing apples and oranges. That is the point though. We have built two very different societies with two very different sets of values. Takeesha [prostitute, drug addict] was born into a world with limited opportunities, one where the black market has filled the void. In her world transgressions are resolved via violence, not lawyers. The law as applied to her is simple and stark, with little wiggle room.
Mr one-glove [Wall Street trader] was born into a world with many options. The laws of his land are open for interpretation, and with the right lawyer one can navigate in the vast grey area and never do anything wrong. The rules are often written by and for Mr one-glove and his friends.
The successful and affluent, regardless of race, must preserve the myth that success in the U.S. is earned, that the U.S. has achieved meritocracy.
If Clarence Thomas, as an African American, can achieve his position as a Supreme Court judge, that is all the proof we need that effort trumps race (and that we no longer need affirmative action)—goes the twisted logic.
And finally, the “don’t force it” message is bowing to the allure in the U.S. of the Invisible Hand of the market and skepticism about the intrusive government.
Again, however, this message ignores evidence. Left to market forces, charter schools have increased the exact rise in segregated schools that is currently also plaguing traditional public schools.
The Invisible Hand is not an ethical force, and issues such as segregation, economic equity, and racial equity are ethical issues—requiring ethical (and thus social) forces and solutions.
Let’s return to Obama’s commencement speech:
During the address, the president rallied against the racism of the 1940s and 50s and the Jim Crow laws.
He told the graduates that despite the obstacles, people like Dr King were able to learn how to be ‘unafraid’.
He said: ‘For black men in the forties and fifties, the threat of violence, the constant humiliations, large and small, the gnawing doubts born of a Jim Crow culture that told you every day you were somehow inferior, the temptation to shrink from the world, to accept your place, to avoid risks, to be afraid, was necessarily strong.
‘And yet, here, under the tutelage of men like Dr. Mays, young Martin learned to be unafraid. He, in turn, taught others to be unafraid.’
Here, again, like Duncan’s talks on education, rhetoric that directly mentions the inequities associated with race and class—a similar pattern found in Perry’s outbursts—are designed to mask and ignore the lingering corrosive influence of race and class in the lives and schools of a growing population of people and children in the U.S.
We must ask who it benefits to raise a fist against the Jim Crow Era while ignoring that the New Jim Crow Era of mass incarceration is destroying the lives of African American males, that urban schools serving disproportionately impoverished African American and Latino/a children are increasingly school-to-prison pipelines and schools-as-prisons, and that the rise of charter schools in abandoned cities like New Orleans are segregating schools and providing “other people’s children” schools unlike the schools for privileged children.
Certainly it doesn’t benefit the victims of cultural and institutional racism and classism that remain in the U.S.