Is Poverty Just an Excuse?

3:27 pm

In the effort to fight the “poverty is no excuse” crowd, education researcher Dr. David Berliner reviews a half-dozen out-of-school factors that have been clearly linked to lower achievement among poor and minority-group students: birth weight and non-genetic parental influences; medical care; food insecurity; environmental pollution; family breakdown and stress; and neighborhood norms and conditions. Additionally, he notes a seventh factor: extended learning opportunities in the form of summer programs, after-school programs, and pre-school programs. Access to these resources by poor and minority students could help mitigate the effects of the other six factors.

Here’s the link to the full policy brief. (712 KB PDF document)

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Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

filed under: Demographics, Equity, Reform

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79 Responses

  1. Comment from Idler:

    Do those who say “poverty is no excuse” mean that poor students can be expected to perform as well as well-off students?

    It seems as if more precision is needed in the definition. On the one hand, being poor doesn’t necessarily equate to being stupid, ignorant or undisciplined. On the other hand, people who might be described that way are more likely to be poor, especially in a country where food and clothing can be cheaply acquired.

    Teachers certainly have a harder time with the “underclass” than the merely poor who could have quite strong culture. Where family ties are weak, parents are immature and children get little education and encouragement at home, students are going to be harder to teach.

    Still, the problem is moral and cultural more than a simple question of relative means.

  2. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    I spent a week in an inner-city high school in another state. The school was almost 100 percent African-American, had most of the kids on free lunch, and had the lowest or close to lowest scores in the state.

    The kids were way behind other high school kids. One remark I heard over and over from teachers was “That’s all these kids can do.” In one way they were right because the kids had reached high school way behind in their skills. But the attitude of that’s all these kids can do easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where teachers teach down to the level of the kids instead of working to teach the kids where they should be.

    Asking whether poverty is an excuse is asking the wrong question. We should be asking why schools that serve large numbers of poor children aren’t doing the hard work of changing teaching to become more like schools that are bringing poor children up to higher levels. We should also be asking why states and districts aren’t leading those schools to higher levels.

  3. Comment from Idler:

    PPS_Parent, you make a valid point, but it seems that there will always be severe limitations relating to the preparedness of children for school.

    Poverty may be more of an effect than a cause, but children who grow up without parents readying them for school are always going to be harder to teach. That’s not a reason to give up or fail to emulate models that have achieved results, but it is a reason to moderate one’s expectations.

  4. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    Idler … The fact that some children come to school less advantaged than other children is all the more reason for urgency in improving schools. Moderating expectations because children are poor easily evolves into the soft bigotry of low expectations. America’s civil rights groups have seen this over and over and this is why they are urging the President and Congress not to retreat from federal provisions requiring states to improve schools.

  5. Comment from howard:

    PPS uswd to have as their mission statement: “Every Student learns. No exceptions. No excuses.” It never became priority number one as varying stakeholders had and have priorities of their own.

    Some PPS students of need are aided by outside services such as SMART, SEI, Friends of the Children, Saturday Academy and Multnomah County Library. There are also the fortunate few students whose elementary school classes were adopted into I Have a Dream groups.

    There is no excuse that every PPS student in need of guidance does not get that guidance.

  6. Comment from Idler:

    PPS_Equity, your remark is overwrought. I said that one needs to be realistic, but that understanding that results won’t be the same in the suburbs is no reason not to do exactly what you recommended in your first post.

    I’m in favor of enforcing standards as long as they aren’t designed in such a way that they will result in counterproductive workarounds, such as social promotion.

    What civil rights groups and others should do is urge people to take care of their own children and value learning. The single greatest cause of poverty and ignorance is single parenthood.

  7. Comment from pdxmomto2:

    Public Schools are, like it or not, governmental institutions. There are somethings that government can control and somethings it can not.

    Government can not force people to not have children or to be good parents. At it’s best government can give all children an equal opportunity, not guarantee them all an equal outcome.

    Government can not make people be better parents, but it could provide health care, food security and quality early childhood education programs to every child that would mitigate some of the underlying problems of poverty and/or ambivalent parenting.

    Government could also provide supports to struggling parents so those that wanted to, could be the parents we wish all children could have. Government can not force parents to be involved in schools, but I believe that it could make schools work in the absence of parent participation.

    In this country the Government is the people, it is us, and we can not abandon our children. Regardless of the circumstance of their birth, it was not their choice, and we must remember not to punish them for it, but instead to raise them up.

    We need both a school system that values and nurtures each child, and a society committed to fighting the root causes of poverty and inequity.

  8. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    pdxmomto2 – eloquently and powerfully said.

    PPS_Parent – you wrote, “The fact that some children come to school less advantaged than other children is all the more reason for urgency in improving schools.” No one would ever argue against improving schools. The question is: what else can we do to ensure that children are less advantaged than others? Of course we should improve schools. But why not do everything we can to improve the lives and expand the opportunities of the children of the have-nots? Obama, et al, are focused only on improving schools. Why stop there? Why not consider the possibility that the lives that children lead outside of school might be correlated to how they learn in school? Why not do everything we can to truly leave no child behind?

  9. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    PPS_Parent – You wrote, “We should be asking why schools that serve large numbers of poor children aren’t doing the hard work of changing teaching to become more like schools that are bringing poor children up to higher levels. We should also be asking why states and districts aren’t leading those schools to higher levels.”

    The problem here is that lots of schools are focused on raising the test scores of low-income kids. Is this what you mean by “bringing poor children up to higher levels”?

    If so, you should look at the work that has come out of the Center on Education Policy. A key finding from the 2007 study: 44 percent of school districts reported cutting time from one or more subjects or activities at the elementary level-social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch and/or recess–to devote more time to reading and math. This narrowing of the curriculum is occurring disproportionately in low-income schools with high concentrations of minorities.

    So even in cases where “school improvement” is happening, we have to wonder at what cost these so-called “improvements” are occurring.

    We also have to wonder how deep and wide these “improvements” are, as NAEP data show a clear flattening of scores from elementary to middle school — even after the implementation of NCLB in 2002 when the concentration on “school improvement” began to take off.

  10. Comment from Idler:


    Following your prescription will perpetuate rather than combat the root causes of poverty (I’m not even sure what you mean by inequity.).

    Government cannot make people be better parents, but it can enable them to be worse ones by relieving them of their responsibility to be parents and acting, as it were, in loco parentis. The biggest problem is not parents who don’t quite have the means, but parents who simply don’t take responsibility for their offspring.
    There’s nothing teachers can do about that directly. However, as citizens with a vital role they could at least wake up to the nature of the problem and speak out against it rather than enabling it.

    Teachers have a stake in addressing this cultural problem because refusing to recognize that it has cultural and moral roots rather than strictly material ones threatens to convert the profession into social work and schools into something more resembling orphanages than institutions of learning.

  11. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    It’s terribly important that children develop reading and math skills in their early school years and it’s clear that some schools are going to have to spend more time on reading and math.

    But whether you agree that test scores are valid markers of children’s achievement or not, raising test scores and providing well-rounded education are not mutually exclusive. There are many examples of schools that serve large numbers of poor children and minority children that manage to do both.

    We have a right to expect that public education will strike the right balance between focusing on reading and math and including other subjects in the curriculum. We should never settle for phony arguments that it is one or the other and that schools that have to focus on reading and math have no choice but to cut other subjects.

    Finally, I do not understand the claim that “Obama et al” (whoever the et al are) are ignoring poverty and inequality by focusing on improving schools. Improving schools is worthwhile in itself and nothing that President Obama has said or done suggests that he intends to take the low road on alleviating poverty and eliminating inequality.

  12. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    PPS_Parent – you write, “It’s terribly important that children develop reading and math skills in their early school years and it’s clear that some schools are going to have to spend more time on reading and math.”

    Let’s set this comment in a specific context. Let’s look at Rosa Parks Elementary here in Portland, which I’ve written about quite a lot lately. 91% of the kids at Rosa Parks are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. The Kindergartners have 3 “specials”: drama, PE, and library.

    They are all 30 minutes each, and they are all offered back-to-back on Wednesdays. So for an hour and a half, the kids go from one to the other.

    Then, on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, they do nothing but the academic curriculum. No art, no music, no PE, no library, no nuthin’ for 4 out of 5 days.

    They have a single lunch/recess period that lasts about 40 minutes. The kids eat lunch first and then go to recess. A Kindergarten teacher at Rosa Parks that I talked to estimated that recess was about 20 to 25 minutes long, depending on when the kids finish lunch. School starts at 8:30 and goes until 2:45. So that means for those 4 out of 5 days, they have 25 minutes to be goofy and run around and be little kids in a span of 6 hours. The rest is all business.

    The typical elementary student in Oregon gets just 12 minutes a day of physical education, less than half the daily 30 minutes that the Legislature set as a target. Portland elementaries offered their students an average of just 12 minutes of PE class per day.

    Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, students in the affluent neighborhood school of Ainsworth get not one, not two, but three recesses per day. At Ainsworth, Kindergarten kids get PE, music, art and singing once a week each. They get 30 minutes for PE and music and an hour for art. Singing happens every Friday.

    5.9% (five point nine per cent) of the kids at Ainsworth are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

    The upshot? Low-income students and low-income minority students are being given a qualitatively inferior education because they are said to be “behind” in reading and math.

    As I argued in the above post, we have to stop pathologizing children for being where they are in their development, stop robbing them of a broad-based educational experience in the name of raising their test scores, and stop punishing them for being at the effect of the ravages of poverty in the name of closing the so-called “achievement gap.”

    Dumbing down the educational experience of low-income children does not help them in the long run.

    Finally, based on your argument that “(w)e should never settle for phony arguments that it is one or the other and that schools that have to focus on reading and math have no choice but to cut other subjects,” it’s clear that you haven’t talked to very many teachers. I suggest you read Jennifer Booher-Jennings’ piece from the Phi Delta Kappan on “eduational triage” and the phenomenon of teaching to “the bubble kids,” i.e., the kids who are just below the cut score for the state tests. The teachers don’t do this because they want to. They do this because they are told their schools will be closed or they will lose their jobs if they don’t raise the scores of their students in the two subjects that are tested and count for making adequate yearly progress (AYP) under NCLB — reading and math.

    Margaret Spellings, former Sec. of Education under Dubbya, said it best: what gets tested gets taught. You can’t blame teachers for following the federal law.

  13. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    “Finally, I do not understand the claim that “Obama et al” (whoever the et al are) are ignoring poverty and inequality by focusing on improving schools. Improving schools is worthwhile in itself and nothing that President Obama has said or done suggests that he intends to take the low road on alleviating poverty and eliminating inequality.”

    Obama, et al = all the folks who want to ignore the effects of poverty and blame everything on character flaws in low-income minorities; this includes Arne Duncan, Joel Klein of NYC, Eli Broad and the Broad Foundation, the KIPP schools, Teach for America, and all the other neo-liberals who focus exclusively on schools and not what happens outside of schools.

    When Obama reads Berliner’s policy brief or Richard Rothstein’s book Class and Schools and offers clear policy directions on all the issues that these analyses offer, then I’ll start to believe that he’s serious about addressing the underlying causes of low academic performance amongst low-income children.

  14. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    Claiming that President Obama and the others ignore the qualiy of children’s lives outside school is just plain wrong, and it is an insult to President Obama if not the others. Schematizing the debate this way accomplishes nothing.

    President Obama and the other individuals and agencies believe that improving schools is worthwhile in itself.

    There is overwhelming agreement about that within America’s civil rights establishment. It makes no sense to argue that America’s civil rights establishment is abandoning the struggle for a more equitable society because it supports school reform.

    Oregon’s sainted Nick Kristof said that “Education reform could be the most potent antipoverty program in the country.” So the question is why Berliner, an education professor and ex-President of the American Educational Research Association, is not pressing harder for schools to improve. Poverty should not be an excuse for poor schools.

  15. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Actions speak louder than words. Is Obama addressing the root causes of the so-called achievement gap? No, he is not.

    The question is not whether good teachers and schools make a difference. Of course they do. Rather, the question is whether we should stop there. We should not. If we’re serious about leaving no child behind, then we have to do everything in our power to do so. Putting highly-trained, highly-committed teachers in every classroom is a great step. Let’s do this. But let’s tackle all the factors that contribute to the achievement gap, not just one. It’s simply naive to think that teachers and schools alone can do this. It’s also really bad policy.

    Many of the civil rights organizations that protested H.R. 6239, the legislation which would have suspended NCLB sanctions on schools and school districts for a year, are desperate for some indication of change and some mechanism for achieving it. Who can blame them for their desperation? Drop-out rates for low-income minorities is increasing, not decreasing. NAEP scores are flat. There is clearly no sign that anything is working. Yet, curiously and agonizingly, many still believe that NCLB is the only way to accomplish change. They see the situation in a very binary fashion: either take NCLB or go back to the way things were. And for low-income students and/or students of color, going back to the way things were is (obviously) not an option.

    So what choice do they have?

    Their position is perfectly understandable, given the circumstances and given the socio-political history of the country.

    But they are starting to awaken to the fact that they have been sold a bill of goods. Just look at the long list of civil rights organizations that have signed the Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

    The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center are all signers of the this document, which expresses concern over “over-emphasizing standardized testing, narrowing curriculum and instruction to focus on test preparation rather than richer academic learning, over-identifying schools in need of improvement, using sanctions that do not help improve schools, inappropriately excluding low-scoring children in order to boost test results, and inadequate funding.”

  16. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    Again, President Obama has never suggested that efforts to make America more equitable should stop with improving schools and he has never suggested that improving schools will solve all of America’s social problems.

    President Obama has been in office just two months. It is premature to be passing judgment on his wider efforts to make America more equitable, particularly since he is facing the worst economic crisis of our lifetime and since there is no consensus on what the “root causes” of inequity are let alone what to do about it.

    Civil rights organizations agree with President Obama that it’s terribly important to make schools more responsive to the students that are in them now.

    Lastly, blaming federal education policy for every dumb things that schools are doing only cuts it with people looking to make excuses. Unfortunately, there are more of them in public education than many people think.

  17. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Peter, thank you for your cogent remarks. I really think the answer to the poor education in the lower income neighborhoods rests with PPS itself. One of the errors we make is to depend on school reform, educational research and the like to address the problems. The problems need to be addressed within the individual schools in a manner which makes sense for that school. Ainsworth’s problems (the few there are) are not the same as Rosa Parks’ problems. Some general approach is not what we need, but a concerted effort to address the singular problems within each school. This needs to be done within the school not with some general trend (most of which don’t work anyway or the drop-out problems would be getting better). You are so right, Peter, when you talk about the discrepancies. The emphasis on testing keeps us from addressing many of the underlying problems. There is nothing wrong with the idea of testing to see how you are doing, but the idea of the testing becoming the education (so stupidly called achievement by our educational leaders) is hindering much more than it is helping. PPS can only deal with the schools and what takes place there — the rest is pretty much out of their control, while the county, the city, the state, and the federal government can address the underlying problems. The problem from my point of view is that PPS has become pretty poor at addressing the educational problems which exist.

    P.S. There was a time when PPS really worked to improve education for black children in PPS and actally made a lot of gains. This was in the 1980′s, so it could be done for all children in lower economic neighborhoods.

  18. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    PPS_Parent – I challenge you to read the Berliner policy brief and identify a single policy from the Obama administration that specifically implements one of the policy actions that Berliner calls for.
    In defending Obama, I think it falls to you to provide examples of how he is, in fact, looking outside of the current focus on “school improvement” for ways to close the achievement gap.

    Obama is a clear believer in Arne Duncan, and we saw what Arne Duncan did in Chicago. Do you honestly believe that Duncan was made Secretary of Education for any reason other than to implement Chicago’s “Renaissance 2000″ program all over America?

    So we know where Obama is. We don’t need to wait any longer for where he wants to go with public education. That’s why it’s necessary to apply some pressure to get people to read Berliner and Rothstein.

  19. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Steve – thanks for your comments. You wrote, “There was a time when PPS really worked to improve education for black children in PPS and actally made a lot of gains. This was in the 1980’s, so it could be done for all children in lower economic neighborhoods.”

    Can you say more about this?

  20. Comment from mary:

    I think there is plenty of research to show what works to give all children a great education, poor or not. Unfortunately the political will is simply not there to fund it. For example, Head Start funding is so low that only 40% of children who qualify can participate.

  21. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    I believe President Obama picked Arne Duncan to be Secretary of Education to implement President Obama’s agenda for education, not the other way around.

    Pollution, low birth weight, troubled families, children’s unaddressed health needs, and the other problems Berliner identifies are clearly blights on American society and we should devote ourselves to overcoming them. But why link these problems to federal education law at all? Federal education law is not the right vehicle for addressing these problems and it makes no sense to criticize President Obama’s education policies because, for example, they do not address air pollution.

    On another list I read posts from an employee of a state school boards association who argues that federal requirements for states to improve schools are flawed because African-American children have too much lead in their brains. That’s the door that Berliner’s argument opens and having that kind of nonsense thrown in their faces is why America’s civil rights establishment strongly urges the federal government not to back down on requirements for improving schools.

    Finally, to see President Obama’s agenda go to

  22. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    The law is called “No Child Left Behind.” What will it take to leave no child behind? I don’t give a rat’s tuchas who ultimately gets charged with this task. But Dubbya said he was going to leave it to the Dept. of Education to do this. If HUD and the Surgeon General and the EPA and the Commerce Dept. and the Dept. of Homeland Security want to join in, that’s fine with me. Just get it done. Stop focusing on schools alone and then blame them for a problem they are responding to, not a problem they created.

  23. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    There may well be people who believe that schools can and should overcome every economic and social inequity in American life. But I see no evidence that President Obama believes that, or that President Bush believed that, or that political leaders, business leaders, and civil rights leaders who support federal education policy believe that. In fact, I don’t know anyone who believes that, or anything close to it.

    The truth is that there are problems in American public education that are not solely the product of poverty and inequity. Continuing to claim that schools are being blamed for society’s problems demonstrates precisely that poverty is being used as an excuse.

  24. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    PPS_Parent – I’m not sure how to make the argument any clearer. I’m beginning to think you are interested in argument for argument’s sake. I’m not suggesting that schools “can and should overcome every economic and social inequity in American life.” I’m suggesting that our federal government should lead the charge on this. It currently is not. Of course schools cannot overcome every economic and social inequity in American life. This is my point exactly!

    And, yes, of course “there are problems in American public education that are not solely the product of poverty and inequity.” So let’s make a deal: let’s focus on those problems that ARE the product of poverty and inequity AND the problems that are specific to schools. This is what it will take to leave no child behind. Whether you wish to acknowledge it or not, schools ARE being blamed for society’s problems and demonstrates precisely that poverty is being completely ignored.

  25. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    As I said, I’m not convinced that schools are being blamed for society’s problems in any general sense, particularly in the absence of specific evidence that they are. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that President Obama is confused about what schools can and can’t do and I’ve seen nothing to indicate that he is completely ignoring poverty. Merely asserting that schools are being blamed for circumstances beyond their control does not make it true.

    The truth is that there are inertial and retrogressive forces within public education that have nothing to do with poverty and inequity in society.
    Poor and mediocre teaching is a bigger problem in our schools than we admit (certainly people who work in public education are not keen to admit this). Now, someone can say that the reason we have poor teaching is that the kids are disadvantaged or teachers don’t get paid enough or whatever. But poor and mediocre teaching is something we could do something about, without solving issues of poverty and inequity in the larger society.

  26. Comment from Steve Buel:

    I’m a huge Obama fan, but his stated educational programs aren’t very realistic for solving the main problems in education. Pay for performance does almost nothing. Charter schools in a place like Portland can be damaging instead of helpful. NCLB should be dumped, as Hillary suggested, instead of strengthened so we can focus on the broad spectrum of education instead of the narrow swath that testing does. Testing is not achievement, education is achievement.

  27. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    Of course testing is not achievement, but testing is an important tool for identifying what is working and what is not working and what students are achieving at satisfactory levels. The primary purpose for testing in NCLB is to direct resources to schools that need them the most and that is why NCLB’s accountability requirements have wide support from America’s civil rights establishment, even though they are cursed up and down within public education.

    The argument that teachers and principals are focusing on the wrong things only because of federal education policy doesn’t hold much water anywhere else.

  28. Comment from Steve Buel:


    NCLB directs resources to schools that appear to need them because of low test scores, but the resources don’t end up as an integral part of the education process within the school. In fact, often what happens is that the “low performing” schools are given sanctions that make them worse. Take a look around PPS.

    NCLB is cursed up and down by educators because they are on the front lines and see the harm. The reason NCLB is supported by some civil rights leaders is because their schools are so often neglected and they figure we might as well try this, i.e. Jefferson in PPS.

    I never made the argument that NCLB is the only reason educators end up focussed on the wrong things, but it is one of the reasons. Big difference.

    When you emphasize testing to the degree that NCLB forces schools to do then you have to neglect the huge spectrum of other important educational facets including, by the way, a broadening of the subjects which NCLB tests. The result is a far worse education, particularly in those poor schools where testing is most focussed. Heck, do you think Forest Park or Lincoln spends much time on test prep? So the onus lies on poor children to spend their time in testing factories when we could be teaching them how to get along in the world with a real education. If you take a real good look you will see that NCLB doesn’t even improve the reading ability of kids who are really far behind since the focus is on making sure all kids pass (meaning they know how to take the test, not necessarily read or write better) instead of making sure the kids who can’t read can read.

    No, I’m sorry, someone has just sold you a bill of goods.

  29. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    NCLB directs resources to schools that serve large numbers of economically disadvantaged children and to schools where large numbers of children are not achieving at the levels they should be. If schools are not making better use of these resources how is that the fault of NCLB? And there are plenty of schools that serve large numbers of disadvantaged students that have not turned into testing factories.

    I’m sorry, but blaming every silly thing that educators do on NCLB only plays well with the choir that wants to hear that. This tactic has already backfired and that is one of the reasons why the civil rights establishment stands behind NCLB.

  30. Comment from Tom Conry:

    First of all, thank you to all for the opportunity to join in this conversation. I am a teacher at Madison High School, but obviously speak for only myself, I hope I’m not breaking any written or unwritten policies by my posting here under my name and identifying myself as a teacher, but I can’t figure another way to make my particular point without those bona fides.

    PPS_Parent, I totally respect your passion and (especially) your frustration. I share both of these in at least equal measure, I think.

    Still, I wish that I could magically share my experience with NCLB at Madison over the past four or five years with you. You write: “I’m sorry, but blaming every silly thing that educators do on NCLB only plays well with the choir that wants to hear that.” Actually, that sounds profoundly dismissive to me, and – I want to continue being respectful here, but still push back – for me it is the kind of statement that is evidence of Just Not Getting It.

    How to communicate this so you can understand the “thick description” of what learning community at Madison understands? Well, it won’t happen in a blog posting. You had to be there to experience the policy distortions, large and small, caused by NCLB.

    For example, you had to be there for the year we didn’t have music in large part because we were scared to death we would be taken over by the state, in large part because too many children came in the middle of the year that year arriving from various Central American countries, children from indigenous nations who had no written form of their language, but who nevertheless had to be tested. I am not making this up. You had to be there for the year after that when our enrollment fell off the table because the word on the street was that we had no music and we might be closed anyway.

    Madison has never gotten over the destabilizing impact of NCLB. And here’s the thing – we are not at all unusual in this respect.

    I despair of explaining any of this to you in a way that will respect your rage at the poor education students of color have been historically dealt not only in Portland but throughout the U.S. I ask you to accept that I get that, and that if you were to talk to my students or teachers or administrators, you would be satisfied, I believe, that I am a warrior in the fight to make that yesterday’s problem.

    Now, I merely assert these things, and you can either believe me or not. They are happening on an institutional level. Let me tell you about the profoundly demoralizing effects of President Obama’s initiative’s for teachers on a personal level.

    Again, pardon the personal references, but I don’t know of another way to have this conversation. I teach Social Studies. (Actually, I teach kids.) Anyway, every Sunday I get together with my A.P. U.S. History class, 16 students of varying ethnicities (all over the globe, our share of kids of color) and we study together for three hours. Many of the kids walk often in the rain or when it was snowing, sleet, whatever. Many take Tri-Met. Some are lucky and have an adult take them. Some get a ride. Pretty much all of them come all of the time because they want to succeed. I don’t get paid for this, nor do I get reimbursed for the donuts I bring, etc. We don’t have the money. Nor do I get paid for teaching Latin to the students who came up up to me halfway through the year and asked if I would do that. They come every week after school, even this week during Spring Break. This week we’re doing third declension nouns.

    Now, here is why I mention this. I AM NOT UNUSUAL. In my building, I am somewhere in the middle so far as teachers volunteering extra time to help students.

    So . . . when President Obama rolls out tired discredited right wing neoliberal market fundamentalist proposals like charter schools and merit pay, you’ll forgive me if I’m insulted. Does the government of the United States think I will somehow work harder, teach better, if I am paid more? The punch line of the old Winston Churchill joke comes to mind: we have established what you are, we are merely haggling over the price.

    I am a teacher, and I am underpaid and overworked, but I am not going to pay more attention to an essay or a lesson plan because I get another couple of hundred dollars a month. Stop trying to buy us off on the cheap.

    As Bertolt Brecht said, in words that Dr. King would have understood: Everything or nothing! All of us or none!

    And finally (after apologies for being so long winded), let me assert that the tests upon which NCLB is based to not in fact measure what they purport to measure, any more than the notorious Stanford-Binet tests of World War I measured “I.Q.” There are a dozen reasons why they are not reliable, repeatable guides to actual skill levels . . . and, even if they were (which they are not), Peter Campbell’s points about poverty would still be valid. Nemo dat quod non habet as we say in Latin class (“No one gives what that person does not possess.”)

    If we truly want equal education AND WE DO then we must have a just and egalitarian society. If we actually want to make a change and not merely tinker at the margins AND WE DO, then this is the way. The only way out is through.

    Thanks again for the opportunity, and none of this was meant with any kind of disrespect or condescension. Indeed, I would welcome the opportunity to meet you at some point.

  31. Comment from Stephanie Hunter:

    Tom, from one night owl to another let me just say that was a great post. I have abstained because I just don’t feel like I understand NCLB well enough to comment but this helps me understand the human aspect of it. I have heard from parents of kids with disabilities that NCLB has actually been a great benefit but not so much everyone else. I think it has to do with the extra effort placed on teaching academics to kids with disabilities vs. putting widgets together day in day out.
    I am a parent and I also have worked in schools as a contractor or observer of behavior and I know it is the rule not exception that teachers spend their own money and give up weekends and breaks to do what they are passionate about and getting a “bonus” to do your job is insulting when you do ten times more of your job without recognition. Every time I go to the dollar store and see the enormous teacher section I always remind myself that the reason this sprang up was because so many teachers spend their own money to teach kids. Thanks for what you do and I also am wondering on a side note if you happen to have an opinion you care to share about the high school design models?

  32. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    Tom C …

    Nothing in NCLB says the state should immediately take over a school that serves a large influx of students from foreign lands. Why be upset for a year about that?

    Your extra efforts on behalf of your students are commendable. If a performance pay system awarded you additional compensation for that, that seems to me a good thing for you and for your students. It’s not clear to my why you would not want to be compensated for that.

    States make up their own tests under NCLB, just as they set their own standards for the content they will teach and the level of achievement they expect from their students. If you have ideas for better testing you should be taking that up with Salem. The analogy with IQ testing in World War I does not stand up.

    Leave off the rhetoric about “neoliberal market fundamentalist” proposals for merit pay and for charter schools. That’s propaganda, nothing more.

    Finally, you didn’t say what you did to learn about what NCLB really requires, what benefits it should bring to Madison, and what schools similar to Madison are doing. Perhaps NCLB would work better in Madison if you had done so.

  33. Comment from Nancy R.:

    Tom C., this Madison alum (class of ’82) says, “Thank you.”

  34. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Tom, teachers are welcome to post here. Many post anonymously to protect their own privacy, or out of fear of retribution — but those are things you have to decide for yourself. (Personally, I encourage everyone to post under their real names, but anonymous comments are explicitly allowed for those who aren’t comfortable doing so.)

    I place very high value on the perspective of teachers, since you’re the ones dealing with the actual day-to-day realities in the classroom. Thanks for sharing your experience here.

  35. Comment from Ken:

    Thank you for mentioning neoliberalism. We’ll get nowhere as long as we continue to ignore this sickening economic system. People are happy the neoconservatives are out of office – but most people are completely unaware of the equally dangerous neoliberal fundamentalists out there (Obama is very much included in this mess – so is Arne Duncan and the dingbats running the DOE). Sadly, we’re actually going to see more market fundamentalism applied to school districts as Duncan/Obama have zero intention of getting rid of NCLB. A whole lot more schools are going to “fail” in the upcoming years, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how the corporate charter school oligarchs (Gates, Eli Broad, Walton, etc) are salivating over the potential of expanding their dominance over public education. We’re moving slowly towards the voucher system envisioned by neoliberal grandfather Milton Friedman – the charter school movement is a push in this direction. Obama and Duncan have ZERO background in education – Duncan has never taught a day in his life – yet they’ll gladly apply market fundamentalism and the logic of Wall Street to running our school system. Replace “profits” with “test scores” and you wind up with programs like KIPP, YES, and the test-happy education entrepreneurs born out of Teach For America.

    Educators willing to stand up and suggest that market-based solutions are wrong often get skewered and laughed at (or, people bring out the ancient “teachers are socialists/communists” slander). To suggest you go down to Salem and present options for changing the state testing system simply demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how the testing system works. Those decisions are made by the education market – how can we test kids quickly, cheaply, and efficiently. It has nothing to do with testing learning. Tom is completely right about the connection to IQ tests – America has quite the history of applying “scientifically-based” testing measures in a manner that is consistent with the views and values of the dominant classes. Educators no longer make decisions about education – sadly, the DOE has been turned over to the oligarchs that have piloted our economy into the ground, and they appear hellbent on doing the same to public education.

    Tom: thank you for speaking up. I’m a fellow educator in the Jefferson cluster and I’ve seen the destructive forces of NCLB and neoliberalism. I’d love to hear from you – please e-mail me at

  36. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Nice to see more teachers posting here. Keep it up. This blog is pretty well read in the pillars of Power in PPS. And you really know what is going on.

    Look, PPS parent, the problem is not in the testing — heck the public school systems have been testing every year I have been in a school (59 by the way), but the problem is how the testing is now emphasized. While it has brought some much needed attention to special ed. students — hard to hide them in some schools anymore — it has also corrupted the curriculum for the averge student. In the upper middle class schools they don’t have to worry about it so you can’t judge by them, but in the remainder testing takes over a huge amount of the schooling process. Hence, many important parts of a child’s education are placed on the back burner or pushed clear out of the curriculum or deemed unimportant. So, the general public talks about testing as achievement, i.e. the achievement gap which is actually a testing gap. What we should be talking about is an educational gap — and we need to define what we mean by education. This is how we should be judging our schools. Are we providing an excellent education? (Not, only how we are doing on the tests.) But where do you see that in education today.

    One, other thing. It is not easy for a teacher to change the way his or her school deals with any issue, let alone one so entrenched as NCLB. Sure, teachers can fight those things but you are then often marginalized as a malcontent and lose the support of your administrator. A difficult thing since all teachers are walking every day in a minefield where one action can be miscontrued as something else and you are fighting for your livelihood. Seen it happen over and over again.

  37. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    From Rudolf Flesch’s 1955 book Why Johnny Can’t Read to the Reagan administration’s A Nation at Risk (1983) to Dubbya’s No Child Left Behind, conservatives have been blaming schools for America’s problems. Much of the hype was fomented by the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik.

    For a real kick, look at the cover of Life magazine from March 1958. My, this education crisis looks familiar!! :-)

    At the same time, we have seen conservatives seek to control what schools do, what they teach, and the outcomes they produce.

    During this span, we saw two things: (1) that schools SHOULD be doing things they are not and (2) that public schools are the best means by which U.S. society can create opportunities for everyone. This is seen most clearly in the Brown decision from 1954.

    So what are we doing now to expand opportunity for all kids? Read Obama’s Father’s Day speech from last year. Then compare this to his most recent, most detailed speech on education policy.

    What’s missing from these speeches? There are no anti-poverty measures.

    It’s simple. Create a level playing field and then let the opportunities be grasped by those lifted up by these measures.

  38. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    ESEA, of which NCLB is the latest incarnation, was passed as part of Lydnon Johnson’s Great Society program. A good deal of the reason that NCLB has the form it does is in response to pleas from civil rights organizations to get the schools to do more for poor children and minority children.

    Situating NCLB is some fanciful conservative or neoliberal universe is just plan silly. Hilary Clinton said she wrote NCLB’s teacher quality provisions. Was that because she’s a conservative?

  39. Comment from Stephanie Hunter:

    I have been studying the budget information on the website and ran across this question from someone that attended the budget forum:

    I think PPS doesn’t need to be in the transportation and the feeding business. We as parents need to get our kids to school and feed them. I’d like to see what would happen if we delved into that.


  40. Comment from Carrie Adams:

    I’m somewhat new to this site but have been following the discussions on charter schools and poverty.

    I’m troubled by many of the comments regarding race and poverty. As someone who grew up in poverty, married and lived very comfortably, chose to divorce becoming a single parent and again living in poverty, I feel that I have a well-rounded perspective on the issue.

    In addition, I’ve spent the last 18 years in the schools, working at the PPS central office, on education boards and foundations, as an activist protesting at board meetings and now in early childhood education. All the while, my focus has been on improving the lives of people living in poverty.

    I give my history only as background to where I’m coming from.

    What I find so troubling about the comments is that they are all being made from a deficit perspective. I’m especially disappointed by the people who call themselves educators but express lowered expectations (behavior or academic) of poor children. If you’ve been teaching for forty years and held the belief that poor kids are poorly behaved the entire time then maybe it’s time to give up that belief. It doesn’t seem to be productive.

    I expect the poor families that I work with to be successful and they are in just about every measure.

    Every day they’re doing what they need to do to make their lives and their children’s lives better. AND they’re doing it without the supports that many of us take for granted.

    Our early head start program has a strong parent involvement component with class officers and monthly parent meetings in each classroom. In addition, we have a Policy Council that makes recommendations on staffing, curriculum, program changes etc.

    We have home visits three times a year and conferences (100% participation) twice a year.

    Parents develop family goals in partnership with staff. We review them regularly and update them as needed.

    Parents have to be working, going to school or in a jobs program in order to be eligible for our program. On top of that, they have to arrange child drop-off and pick-up between 7 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Try holding a full-time job and juggling two or three school drop offs by yourself.

    The infants and toddlers in our program are bright, funny, creative, sweet, inquisitive children. They will enter the K-12 system prepared and hungry to learn.

    Are there challenges for families living in poverty? Absolutely, but treat them with respect, value them because we can all learn from them, and expect them to be successful.

  41. Comment from Carrie Adams:

    Idler – You wrote “What civil rights groups and others should do is urge people to take care of their own children and value learning. The single greatest cause of poverty and ignorance is single parenthood.”

    Who are you referring to when you say civil rights groups?

    Are the civil rights people the ones who don’t value learning? You might want to check out ODE’s dropout report. “Lack of parental support for education” was one of the major reasons that white students dropped out.

    Are you saying that single parenthood causes ignorance? You must have been raised in a single parent home.

  42. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Carrie, I imagine the 40 year comment was directed at me. I have always expected individual kids in my classes and school to be successful. I just think the school district has an obligation to create schools where poor children can learn in environments which are not way more disruptive than the environments created in schools in more well to do neighborhoods. Your comments reinforce what I have said elsewhere and for years. The assumption that people who point out there are important unaddressed disruption problems in schools with a large contingent of children from lower income families somehow have low expectations or fail to see the negative effects of how the larger society responds to these families, or are in some way racist. This attitude has a huge effect on not creating better schools for the same children we are talking about.

    When we allow the disruption of schools that I have described, then as an institution we are saying that lower income kids are not capable of behaving well. I have stood against this for the last 35 years — and will continue to do so, even though people who should know better want to throw stones.

  43. Comment from PPSexpatriate:

    lower income child = disruptive

    middle income non-traditional school child = “different learning style” “energetic” “creative”

  44. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Just for fun

  45. Comment from Steve Buel:

    PPSexpatriate, yep, often the labels we apply. Sad, really.

    At the same time, classrooms which are consistently disrupted, regardless of who is doing the disrupting, or what label we apply to them, are still disrupted and learning is lessened — often a great deal. So what do we do about it? That is the question I am addressing. Disregarding it helps no one and, in fact, condemns kids in those classroomms to a cycle of inferior education on top of the other difficulties they are having in obtaining a decent education, including the inequities brought about by PPS itself. How great is the disparity — in my opinion? Huge. Enough to massively influence the drop-out rate, to turn kids off to school in general, to disengage them from the classroom and understanding of their education as being important. That, to my way of thinking, makes it a really big deal.

  46. Comment from Carrie Adams:

    Steve Buel – Yes, they teach stone throwing in poverty school, right along with swearing, stealing and lying.

    I have to give you credit for having all of the answers. I picked up your literature at the candidate forum tonight. “What goes on in the class is the critical component of education. Let’s get over the idea that the problem with what goes on in the classroom is we need better accountability and better trained teachers. And let’s get over the idea that it is mostly the teacher’s fault if a kid doesn’t produce. Sure, there are poor teachers, but most teachers are dedicated individuals who love kids and care about learning. We need to respect what teachers say, allow them to choose the training they need. We must stop wasting their time with administrative paperwork and lenghty staff meetings. We must stop insulting their intelligence by suggesting they are inadequate, or that somehow a speaker or an administrative directive will fix their problem….”

    Cry me a river. You’ve repeatedly suggested that poor kids are inadequate. Suddenly, it’s personal.

    A few years back, I requested info from PPS HR department about the number of teachers on programs of assistance. There were only 4 teachers in the entire district on plans for improvement. Yet, less than half the 10th grade population was at benchmark in reading or math. But it can’t be the teachers.

    For those of you opposed to standardized testing, I respect your viewpoint but the tests weren’t really standardized. Minority students were given easier tests to inflate the results.

    At the same time, black students made up 16% of the PPS student population but accounted for 36% of the suspensions and expulsions. (It’s since gone up to 44% with the black student population remaining at 16%) Again, not the teachers.

    And you think this is all because of student behavior?

  47. Comment from Stephanie Hunter:

    I have been meaning to do some research about the behavior management philosophy PPS uses because I have not seen any consistency in the schools I visit. Positive behavior supports is used consistently in Parkrose SD and N. Clackamas SD and it is gaining momentum in the state. I see good stuff coming out of it but no data I have bothered to research yet. I am a trainer of a curriculum called Oregon Interventions Systems (OIS) and it is the state mandated system for positive behavioral intervention but only in name and not as an Oregon Administrative Rule with the exception of DHS programs where it is the rule. PBS is wonderful (not just cuz I train it) and it is based in the idea that people just need to be taught new skills and coping skills, have a high quality of life, and have the personalized supports they need to be successful. Using PBS you focus on proactive supports and looking at the whole person, you are taught positive redirection strategies when things escalate, you are taught the least intrusive crisis response (including restraints)and then how to reintegrate someone when the challenging/disruptive behavior is over. I am not 100% certain but I believe PBS is part of the education curriculum at PSU.

    PPS_expat – YEP!

    I often wish that I could take people to work with me into family homes just to see what I mean. There is so much staggering lonelines and misery in this state. People are barely surviving and they don’t even know it. Those kids go to school and have to work ten times harder than anyone else because of their life experience and then get lowballed on top of it. I do agree that teachers also get the shaft and terrible teachers are rare but terrible systems in which teachers themselves have to survive are the problem. They spend so much of their own money on kids; they borrow it from their families and friends so all of the kids can go on the field trip, they buy extra clothes, shoes, coats to keep on hand. I have said this before but these people do not spend all of that time in school to label and lower expectations of kids.

  48. Comment from Stephanie Hunter:

    Great link Steve R!

  49. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Carrie – I see that you and Steve B. disagree. But I respectfully request that you adhere to the comment policy and attack the argument, not the person. We’ve done a great job in the difficult discussions we’ve been having in engaging in civil, passionate, engaged discourse. Please follow the example set by your peers on this site.

  50. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    PPSExpatriate, Carrie, Rose, and Stephanie – the issue of discipline and bad behavior RE: low-income students keeps coming up in discussions here, and it seems to be the issue that generates the most anger. This is completely understandable.

    Do any of you consider the possibility that poverty has an effect on how students — in the existential sense of the word — “be” in the world? If so, might their “being” show up in how they behave in school? I think it’s incontestable that low-income students and low-income minority students are unfairly and unjustly labeled as “misbehaving” in relation to their white, affluent peers. But I also seems reasonable to me that students who are disproportionately exposed to domestic violence and other manisfestations of poverty would also be more likely to act out in school.

    Does this latter assertion seem reasonable to you?

    Please note – I don’t consider this to be any “flaw” on the part of these students. I look at it as symptomatic of the disease of poverty.

    One other thing: this is where the “poverty is no excuse” argument comes in. Those who make this argument say, “Yes, these kids grow up in tough conditions. But these tough conditions do not excuse their behavior or their low test scores. They can do something about this, and schools can do something about this.”

  51. Comment from Steve Buel:

    What I am suggesting is that hundreds, probably more like thousands, of kids go to school with the intent of getting an education and often Portland’s schools do a poor job of making sure that takes place by not doing a better job of derailing classroom and school disruptions. The disruptions are not anywhere near as prevalent in upper income neighborhoods or middle income neighborhoods and don’t have nearly the negative effect that it does in lower income neighborhoods. The problem reaches its height in middle school and I imagine because of the drop-out problem lessens in high school.

    Now, I consider it somewhat racist and classist that we are willing to accept disrupted classrooms and schools in poorer neighborhoods than we do in other neighborhoods.

    Further, I think it is a school district problem because we don’t structure the schools to minimize the disruptions. Sure, teachers become adjusted to the disruptions, but mostly because we allow it, not because they don’t care about kids or in some way aren’t trying to do a good job. Putting the onus where it belongs is terribly important to solving the problem. So, of course, is teaching kids the importance of good behavior and not accepting disruptive behavior.

    Positive programs, such as Stephanie suggested, can have a huge effect on the behaviors I am talking about. But tolerating disruptions to the degree PPS is willing to do undermines a lot of the good work these positive programs do.

    Incidentally, I think a lot of moving to charters, sending your kid across town to a different school, fleeing the district all together, and using the focus options is based a good deal on perceptions, often accurate, that a neighborhood school is just too unruly.

  52. Comment from Stephanie Hunter:

    You know Peter this almost becomes a nature/nurture debate when it comes down to it. Poverty is a lack of something and I agree that not having basic needs met and then being expected to perform in a one size fits all model can be a set up to fail and poverty “is” a factor. You have people like me and Rose who have shared stories of pulling out of the muck but I also have to credit my keen adaptive skills that not only knew how to attach to safe people (teachers, neighbors) but I also essentially crafted my own educational experience by manipulating teachers with my social savvy and independence. In high school I would be able to turn a 20 page research paper into a 20 minute presentation that I cobbled together the night before with my adaptive skills learned from having to survive.

    I know people raised in wealth that I consider as experiencing poverty of learning the consequences of their actions. They were rescued by their parents over and over and now have to learn basic problem solving skills as an adult (Wall Street for example).

    The kid in poverty who is in the child sex ring sold for drugs every night and the kid in poverty who has a parent/grandparent/older sibling/foster parent giving them everything they can by scraping by is going to have a way different school experience.

  53. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Stephanie, a recent book I read made a good case for learning to manipulate your environment as the defining issue of success in society in general and that this skill is taught better in upper income and middle income families who are more used to doing this. Interesting to hear you say it was a major factor in your development. I try to teach kids in my classroom that the teacher is paid for by their parents’ taxes and the teacher’s job is to help them so they need to use him or her to get what they need to get a good education, not just respond to their lead.

  54. Comment from Stephanie:

    I am constantly amazed at the adaptive skills I see in children and maybe I just notice because I had to do it myself.

    For quite a while I had a huge gap between my developmental level and adaptive skills. My K-3 librarian and teachers saved me. I agree that kids (and ideally parents in a perfect world) need to be taught to advocate for the kind of education that works for them but I don’t know yet if boutique schools are the answer (still formulating). Teachers should of course introduce the concept of multiple intelligences and also recognize and nurture it from the get-go. When I was a supervisor I was very good to my staff but I also told them that they would never get a pass for expecting me to read their mind or see the inequities at work when I was so busy and barely there. If they did not call to my attention an unfair action or ask for the help they needed then it was not going to prevent me from following through with a disciplinary action if necessary. Now if I had a staff person that I did not think would do this but that had good qualites anyway I would adjust and ask my manager to keep an eye on them so I could help them before they messed up.

    I want to clarify something else I said previously. I am leaning towards poverty is a factor but not an excuse. I firmly do not believe in punishment but experiencing the natural and logical consequences of your actions I do believe in. This is how people learn. Just because a Wall Street goon did not get to learn what failure was because his parents protected him from it and now he has no conscience does not mean he should not be held accountable for lack of scruples. Just because a child born addicted to drugs was put in multiple foster placements and became a murderer does not mean they should not be held accountable. I do believe in reform and rehabilitation though. When I teach parents in the family home I tell them, “There is nothing scarier than a calm and in control parent.” Having high expectations of someone that has never had that before actually causes challenging behaviors before it achieves success. Most people will not ride out the behavior though and give up too easy. When we give up the child relaxes and says, “Ok, I knew I was a piece of garbage. They had me worried there for a second that I was actually worthy of love.” It’s true folks. I see it day in and day out.

  55. Comment from PPSexpatriate:

    I guess that the piece that continues to stick in my craw is that poverty equals dysfunction. The actual issue is that poorer you are, the more your behavior is labeled. The more you have “contact” with child wefare and other agencie.

    I worked at a domestic violence agency, and trust that it affects all income levels and ethnicities.

    Can you imagine what would’ve happen had a Jefferson kid sold drugs to another student, causing that student to overdose and die? Well, this happened at Lincoln and parents are still willing to do ANYTHING to get their kids in that school. Even after Lincoln students protested that their drug-dealing friends was forbidden from attending prom.

    For instance, in California, pregnant women on medicaid are random tested for illegal drug use. Pregnant women on private insurance are not. Poor people are targeted more often than their wealthier counterparts.

    So I will say again, that I reject the premise that poorer children are more disruptive than richer ones. I have known many middle class and upper class train wrecks.

    ::::::::shakes head:::::::

  56. Comment from Steve Buel:

    PPSexpatriate, you can reject the premise, but the question is how to account for the disparity then in schools from different neighborhoods. If you reject the disparity then I can’t agree. How you want to arrive at the disparities is a different matter. I just think that poor behavior has a tendency to become self-sustaining. It is worse to be unwilling to deal with it — doesn’t mean all children, doesn’t mean you label anyone. If a kid or adult is disruptive then you need to deal with it. Not let it go to create more disruption. Because disruption in a school setting does not work well and condemns children in those schools to a worse education. So why do we have to condemn poor kids to a worse education. That is what I am fighting against.

  57. Comment from Stephanie:

    Can we get clear on disruption perhaps?

    Disruption sounds to me like something that happens but is not a pattern of behavior. I do not think of disruption as violent or harmful but perhaps annoying and needing some additional training and skills to handle. Large class sizes for example make disruptions more impactful because if you take the time to set a firm limit with this child then another kid might use this opportunity to act up. When a kid is disruptive in my environment that means I failed to give them a motor break proactively and I need to remember to do that sooner. A pattern of behavior is something different altogether. That is why I bring up PBS in this thread because rich/poor/abused/spoiled you are treated equally if the curriculum is used as prescribed. PBS takes into account background but only as information to support you not judge you.

  58. Comment from PPSexpatriate:

    In poor schools, it’s the kids’ fault and discipline starts.

    In richer schools, the kids’ creativity and energy aren’t being supported enough and it’s the school’s fault.

    Depending on where you fall on the SES decides whether you get labeled/punished or supported and challenged for the same behavior. Depending on what track you are placed on, you live up or down to expectations.

    I can’t make it any plainer than that.

    I’m fighting against pathologizing poor and/or minority kids. Period.

    With that I will stop going around this mulberry bush.

  59. Comment from Stephanie:

    Kids need defined limits, boundaries, high expectations, choices that are possible and supported, a sense of control over their life, and they need to be able to experience the consequences of their actions to learn problem solving skills – Child dev. 101. My point about behavior support is universal for all children and PPS needs to adopt a system that is consistent across settings. Part of that consistency is the reality check that we need to label kids based on their strengths, gifts, dreams, vision, and identifying how they learn. A child is not a “behavior problem” regardless of their school, color, or family income. A child is a learner and that is all.

    PPS_Expatriate is correct that the reality is that kids who are poor/minorities/disabled are pathologized and those who are not considered sensitive, gifted, spirited. We keep this myth going if we assume that “those kids” need our help because they are so disruptive. Can’t we just help them because it is nice to help people and clearly we all believe in equality? Do we have to ride in on our steed and wave our flag to save the poor kids from themselves? This just creates idiotic comments like the one from the open budget forums I posted above that PPS needs to get out of the feeding and transporting business. The public clearly thinks, based on that statement, that poor/minority/disabled students are taking the resources away from those who are more spirited, gifted, and sensitive.

  60. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Stephanie – I think the perception amongst lots of middle-class whites is that low-income, high minority schools are filled with lots of kids that “misbehave.” I’d argue this is one of the major drivers behind the transfer option. I don’t think this is because the majority of middle-class whites are racist. I think they are ignorant, plain and simple.

    So what, in your opinion, is the best way to break through this ignorance? How can this stereotype be revealed as a stereotype and not “the truth”?

    One major challenge: do you think all the data that Carrie mentioned — black students make up 16% of the PPS student population but account for 36% of the suspensions and expulsions — can be attributed solely to racist attitudes of teachers and administrators? If so, then how do you rise above simply calling these folks racists? How can we get people to see their actions as racist and then stop repeating (largely unconscious) behaviors?

  61. Comment from Steve Buel:

    PPSexpatriate, when you are standing up fighting against pathologizing kids I will be standing right there with you.

  62. Comment from Rose:

    This is such a huge topic I don’t know where to start.

    Stephanie and I both have talked about coming from horrendous backgrounds. She credited her adaptive skills for her survival.

    I should do the same. I consider myself lucky. I’m lucky I had enough smarts and I am lucky for whatever reason I had a survivor mentality. One of my siblings was not so lucky: he committed suicide.

    But we can’t expect all kids to be as adaptive.

    It is equally unfair to think that most kids in poverty experienced the same abuse and neglect. I know PLENTY of poor kids who have fantastic parents. In fact, those homes were my refuge growing up. As PPS Expat says, poverty is not the same as poor parenting.

    And as she says, people see behavior through a different lens. Drinkin’ Lincoln gets laughed off for its not-so-funny cocaine problem, and the students there sure don’t get arrested for measure 11 offenses, even when they are holding way serious drugs.

    I think this is what it boils down to for me: life is harder for poor kids. It is harder because you often have less help, less sympathy, less leeway.

    Poor families have more stresses too. Lack of health care, untreated illnesses, lack of good healthy food…the list goes on.

    There are times when poor children do suffer greater problems. One example is the under-reported problem of lead poisoning among minority children in Portland.

    Another issue that can’t be dismissed is the impact of meth abuse among poor families. It is a nasty awful drug that makes adults hurt children.

    So…I suppose for me it is both. We need to stop seeing poverty as a pathology. But we also need to realize being poor can be oh so very hard.

    And while we are talking about poor children we really should note most poor kids in Portland are white and live near Gresham.

  63. Comment from Carrie Adams:

    Peter – You requested that I adhere to the comment policy and attack the argument, not the person. Your request reminded me of something that happened to a friend recently. My friend is a black male PPS employee who was visiting a black female friend at the central office. They were having a conversation in the foyer along with several other groups of people (all white) while a meeting was taking place in the boardroom. A high level central office employee walked up to them and “shushed” them. As a white person, I wouldn’t have thought anything of that if it happened to me. This week as I sat at the back of the BESC foyer watching the board meeting, I saw the same central office employee single out another group of blacks for shushing.

    I agree that you have been very good about attacking the argument and not the person but I disagree that my peers have all done the same. Help me understand how I went astray of the comment policy.

    It seems to me that poor children have been repeatedly attacked on this website and nobody was reminded about the comment policy. Are attacks on groups or classes acceptable?

    How about if I use charter schools to illustrate a point? Just so you know, I absolutely understand both sides of the charter school issue. When the charter school bill was introduced in Salem years ago, I testified in opposition to it for the very reasons that Steve Rawley has cited. As years passed and I became exhausted by efforts to improve the quality of education in PPS, I struggled with the decision to flee Portland. My family ended up moving to the suburbs where my kids attended better schools but we lost many of our friends because of that decision. I did what I needed to do to take care of my kids and continued to volunteer as an activist in Portland. We all want the best for our kids.

    That said, here’s my example of the way poor kids have been treated on this site (cut and pasted from comments):

    “Charter school children who grow up without parents readying them for school are always going to be harder to teach. That’s not a reason to give up or fail to emulate models that have achieved results, but it is a reason to moderate one’s expectations.

    What civil rights groups and others should do is urge charter parents to take care of their own children and value learning. The single greatest cause of poverty and ignorance is charter schools. What about the charter students who don’t care and have parents that don’t care? These kids are the rule not the exception in PPS.

    The issue of poor behavior in charter schools is very pervasive and is maybe the most important issue in PPS. It really manifests itself in the middle grades and is extremely influential in affecting the drop-out rate. What I am saying is that on the average in classrooms in charter schools there is much more misbehavior. This creates a worse learning environment and makes it much more difficult for students to learn and teachers to teach. More kids in these schools are less engaged in school, have sporadic attendance problems, worse school skills, and misbehave in class more.”

    A friend told me about the PPS Equity site and said that Steve Rawley had taken up the work that the Crisis Team used to do. I was happy to think that the work continued but I’m having doubts about that. PPS Equity may welcome all civil discussion but I don’t feel that everyone’s voices are being heard.

  64. Comment from Stephanie Hunter:

    Peter you said:
    I don’t think this is because the majority of middle-class whites are racist. I think they are ignorant, plain and simple.

    So what, in your opinion, is the best way to break through this ignorance? How can this stereotype be revealed as a stereotype and not “the truth”?

    You’re right about it being ignorance most of the time.

    In my opinion we think preventatively and presently all the time. All the wise people on this site can expose their kids to community service. Take your kids to play with children at Doernbecher and Providence, become a paid county respite provider and take in a foster child for a few hours so the foster parent can get a break, become a foster parent, volunteer in the ELL or life skills classroom to experience a day in the life, volunteer at a shelter. Your kids will grow up appreciating what they have and knowing how to help others. If we all do it then it might have a domino effect. That’s thinking preventatively. Thinking presently, perhaps Steve R can get a calendar feature going and we organize to work on individual issues together that we are interested in. We all agree on one thing. Kids deserve a chance and we want to give them all an opportunity to succeed. Let’s champion some policy changes and show up in large groups to have our voices heard and bring our ideas.

    Peter – I appreciate that you always bring it back to being solution-oriented.

  65. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    It is alarming that Black students comprise 16 percent of the student population but 44 percent of the suspensions and expulsions.

    Discrimination is of course a possible explanation. And in my opinion whenever that possibility arises finding out whether there is discrimination or not should be of the highest priority.

    At the same time it’s important to examine whether PPS is doing enough to help minority students buy in to school.

  66. Comment from Carrie Adams:

    PPS_Parent – I completely agree with you. It is alarming. I think there are multiple factors associated with the disproportionate discipline rates. One factor that I believe to be especially critical is the disproportionate student/ teacher ethnic population rate. From the ODE Oregon 2007/08 State Report Card:

    “From 1997-98 to 2007-08, the percent of minority students went from 16.3 percent to 28.9 percent, while the percent of
    minority teachers increased slightly from 3.9 percent to 5.3 percent”

    I spent four years in PPS HR department and have seen firsthand the barriers PPS creates for minority applicants. There are programs in place designed to increase the percentage of teachers of color but the programs are being ignored and nobody tracks their effectiveness.

    The disaggregated suspension/expulsion data is even more worrisome. Not only are students of color being disciplined at disproportionate rates but there are incident areas where they are under-represented and do not receive the support that they need.

  67. Comment from Steve Buel:

    I have many times tried to get PPS to consider a plan I have put forth which would increase the numbers of outstanding teachers of color. They haven’t been interested.

  68. Comment from Carrie Adams:

    Steve B. – We’re in agreement on that!

  69. Comment from Steve Buel:

    These suspension rates are alarming. As a co-author of the desegregation plan which made huge strides in more equitable treatment for African-American children I have been very upset at the terrible job we have done in allowing education to deteriorate in lower-income neighborhoods. As resources have thinned we have protected schools in upper and middle income neighborhoods. It doesn’t surprise me that children in educationally deteriorating schools have larger suspension and expulsion rates. They have had those rates for years. The question for me has always been what to do about them. Step one is to make every effort to meet the needs of kids in all our schools, particularly by improving those schools. Does anyone know how the suspension and expulsion rates break down by family income? Would be an interesting statistic. Seems like you could cross reference with free and reduced lunch. It is certainly a much more quantifiable unit than ethnic background.

  70. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Carrie, I alone am not capable of carrying on the work of the Education Crisis Team that you were a part of, and would never claim to be worthy of that.

    I’ve paid tribute to the work of that group as part of the continuum of struggle for civil rights in our schools. I don’t know how to carry on that work. I place high value on your experience and opinion in that regard. I hope you’ll continue to contribute here.

    You and others have taken issue with Buel’s characterization of the problems he describes in poor schools in Portland. I get that.

    I don’t really want to get in the middle of something between you and Buel that may extend beyond comments here, or interpret what he’s written, but I think you may be speaking past one another.

    As I read it, the problem he’s talking about is precisely lowered expectations for poor and minority kids, something I think we all agree is a serious problem.

    Buel wrote: “When we allow the disruption of schools that I have described, then as an institution we are saying that lower income kids are not capable of behaving well.”

    He’s placing the blame squarely on the schools, not the students.

    Now, like PPS_expatriate said, we’ve been around the mulberry bush several times. I think most of us here are actually on the same side, even if we quibble on the language.

  71. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    Lincoln spends $5300 per student and Jefferson spends $8300 per student. Ockley spends $6300 per student and Mt Tabor spends $5200, so I don’t see that schools in lower-income neighborhoods are getting shortchanged – at least not on the face of these statistics.

    Zero expulsions at Jeff and 1 percent at Ockley, though the suspension rate was high at both schools – 29% at Jeff and 27% at Ockley.

    I don’t envy the task of school administrators in finding the right balance between protecting the rights of students to an orderly and safe school environment and instituting overly strict disciplinary policies. Still, differences of the size I see here are troubling. I hope the district is giving a high priority to reviewing the whole situation – things like this can get lost whenever there is turmoil around the budget.

  72. Comment from Steve Buel:

    I think poor kids have been attacked on this website. I spent 14 years teaching the 6th grade in the suburbs behind Intel and 10 years teaching in a far out southeast Portland school where at least two of those years the school had the lowest poverty rate in the state. The kids themselves were innately the same, but the experiences on average they brought to school were incredibly different. These manifested themselves in the school in a myriad of ways. Unless we recognize that children bring different backgrounds and make adjustments then we end up teaching only for those kids who come with the school skills honed already. This is part of the charter school argument. This is part of the drop-out problem. This is part of the misguided testing programs. Etc. So, if it is an attack to point out the need for understanding and to push for equity based on where inequity has been established, then it is. But I have found most of the people on this website to be very non-racist, non-sexist, and non-classist, but also willing to explore the real basis for problems. That is why I spend the time here — if it was differnt I wouldn’t.

    So when it is pointed out that black students comprise 44% of suspensions and expulsions it is not seen as an attack on black students, after all it is saying they get suspended and expelled more often, but a situation which needs to be explored openly and hopefully honestly. And just maybe someone will take some action which will help fix it. This site isn’t the action — it is the discussion. Running for office, getting on committees, openly protesting injustice, standing up in your life, and voting are the actions.

    Sorry, Steve and PPSexpatriate but it is a mulberry bush worth going around a few times more. And, Steve, thanks for your explanation of what I am saying; it is much appreciated and if there was anyone who could speak for me it would be you.

  73. Comment from Carrie Adams:

    Steve Rawley – I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you alone was capable of (or should be) carrying on the work of the crisis team. You’ve been very clear from the beginning.

    I’ll clarify. My expectation based on what my friend had told me was that this was a vehicle for addressing the disparity in the quality of education that poor students and students of color receive in Portland. The discussion is more limited than I expected. I can accept that.

  74. Comment from Steve Buel:

    PPS_parent, your reading of the statistics is correct. Though there would be some question about how they were arrived at. This disparity goes throughout the school district in reverse of what you might imagine. I think another telling statistic is the number of high school offerings in say Lincoln and Madison, about double in Lincoln and this statistic also goes throughout the school district in reverse manner. I imagine the answer is in the economies of scale, a situation which is brought on by the transfer process. If kids went to school in their own neighborhoods then the money and the offerings would better balance off.

    A similar issue is raised when it is pointed out schools in lower income neighborhoods get Title 1 money, but this doesn’t break down exactly that way either evidently. And that money helps kids who are struggling so it is not added into the general population of students.

    If you read about 100 different posts on this site you can document a lot of the inequities which exist in many areas.

  75. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    Madison spends $6500 per student and Lincoln spends %5300 per student. It isn’t clear to me what economies of scale you are talking about or how having a permissive or restrictive policy on school choice contributes to those economies.

    I suppose you could argue that putting more kids in Madison would make it a better school, or you could argue that more kids would go to Madison if it were a better school

    Madison receives no Title I dollars even though it enrolls a significant number of ELL students and two-thirds of its students are eligible for subsidized lunch. I wonder how you would explain to Madison students why they do not receive Title I funds and the responsibilities for the district and the state to improve Madison that go along with it.

  76. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Madison spends more per student than Lincoln but offers vastly less opportunity. What part of “economy of scale” escapes you?

  77. Comment from Rita:

    Carrie Adams noted some disturbing statistics on disproportionality in school discipline. I think this is a huge, but largely ignored issue for minority students, especially African American males. Brian Baker at Juvenile Rights Project has done some wonderful work on this topic and some of his findings are stunning. JRP published a formal study last year that brought together national and local research. (See “Eliminating the Achievement Gap: Reducing Minority Overrepresentation in School Discipline,” Juvenile Rights Project, 2008.

    I think it might be helpful to the discussion to cite some of the findings here. They focus on rates of exclusionary discipline – suspensions and expulsions – since they are the most disruptive of a student’s educational progress.

    Nationwide, minority students are suspended and expelled from school at two to three times the rate of Caucasian students and at rates significantly higher than their percentage of the overall school population. This disproportionality has increased in the last 15 years, and holds true across rural and urban districts.

    But the most significant finding, to my mind, is that numerous studies conclude that the higher rates of discipline do not reflect higher rates of disruptive behavior by minority students. In fact, studies show that African American students are more likely to receive harsher discipline, such as suspension or expulsion, than Caucasian students referred for the same or even less serious infractions.

    “…Studies find that harsh disciplinary procedures, cultural and language barriers, and racial bias result in the disproportionate exclusion of minority students from public school. In fact, research suggests that African American students tend to receive harsher punishments for less serious offenses than their Caucasian classmates. In an analysis of the reasons that middle school students in one urban district were referred to the office, one study found that Caucasian students were more often referred to the office for vandalism, smoking, endangerment, drugs and alcohol. African American students were more often referred for loitering, disrespect, excessive noise, and interference. This is just one of many studies concluding that there is no evidence that African American students misbehave at a significantly higher rate than other students.”

    Note in particular that the white students’ offenses tend to be factual, while the black students’ infractions are more subjective and therefore much more likely to be influenced by cultural and linguistic differences.

    The numbers on PPS are largely consistent with national trends, but have been actually worse. Looking at the 2002-03 school year, African Americans made up only 16.5 percent of the PPS student population, but accounted for 43.5 percent of all major disciplinary referrals, an overrepresentation of more than 260%. Stats for suspension and expulsion were even worse, with African American students overrepresented by almost 400% (8.13% of all African American students in PPS compared to only 2.24 % of Caucasian students).

    The JRP study notes in particular that zero tolerance policies have dramatically increased the incidence of the most extreme disciplinary measures, with no apparent improvement in student safety, school climate, or student performance. I would note that schools that use the most regimented instructional models, including little or no recess and PE, tend to have higher rates of behavior referrals. I’m guessing that’s not by accident. And it’s also not by accident that those schools tend to have predominantly minority and poor students. Add to that PPS’s dismal record on recruiting and retaining minority teaching staff, increasing the likelihood of cultural misunderstanding, and the fact that minority schools tend to have less experienced teachers for whom classroom management is an issue and I think you have a perfect storm for disproportionality.

    The JRP study also notes that minority overrepresentation is a society-wide phenomenon. “In child welfare, for example, African-American children account for 44 percent of children in foster care, although they represent only 15 percent of all U.S. children.” In Oregon, African-American and Native American children are 3-6 times overrepresented in foster care, a rate that puts us at the bottom of yet another national list. And there’s more: “In the juvenile justice system, minority youth are disproportionately arrested, adjudicated and incarcerated. Minority youth represent one third of juveniles in the general population, but two thirds of those in secure detention. Similarly, African-American youth ages 6 to 21 make up 14.8 percent of the general population but 20.2 percent of special education students. African-American youth are overrepresented in 10 of the 13 special education disability categories. Compared to Caucasian children, they are 2.9 times as likely to be labeled mentally retarded, 1.9 times as likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed, and 1.3 times as likely to be labeled learning disabled.”

    All in all, I think these numbers nicely put to rest the mainstream media’s contention that we live in a “post-racial” society. My fervent hope is that this administration might actually start paying attention to these things.

  78. Comment from Stephanie Hunter:

    Thank you Rita. The JRP is awesome. I have always been so impressed with the work they do.

  79. Comment from PPS_Parent:

    Has there been a study of the underlying reasons for different rates of disciplinary actions for children of different races and ethnicities in PPS? I mean an analysis of the causes for referrals and an analysis of whether students receive the same consequences for the same actions? And does anyone know if there is a district plan for addressing the issue or how the district responded to the issues raised by the JRP report?

    As to the Lincoln-Madison comparison, is the issue that Madison does not have enough resources or that it is not making best use of the resources it has? Either way, I don’t see this as an economy of scale issue. Compared to Lincoln’s attendance area a relatively large proportion of students in the Madison attendance area do not attend Madison. I’m still not clear as to how compelling more of them to attend Madison (as if that were possible) would make Madison a better school.