Richard Whitmire: Education woes aren't entirely poverty's fault
The class action lawsuit the ACLU announced last week against Michigan and a tiny Detroit-area school district for failing to educate children raises this question: Can schools ever compensate for the ills of poverty?
In places where poor and minority students increasingly dominate classrooms, the debate about troubled schools becomes polarized around the poverty question. Many urban school teachers say they get blamed for children who arrive in school badly prepared for learning. School reformers argue that some educators hide their shortcomings behind the cloak of poverty.
Highland Park, Mich., would seem to be a poster child for the argument that poverty, not poor schooling, is to blame for lousy student outcomes. The life has been sucked out of this working-class community once home to Chrysler, a city now so poor it had to remove 1,000 of its 1,500 street lights because it couldn't afford to pay the power bill.
In Highland Park, which is nearly all African-American, roughly half the residents live below the poverty line, compared with less than 15 percent of Michigan residents. School enrollment here is plummeting, while school deficits are soaring. Already, Highland Park is one of three Michigan school districts taken over by the state and now run by an emergency manager. No surprise Highland Park students turn in awful test scores: 75 percent of seventh-graders failed to reach proficiency levels on state reading tests.
Blaming poverty here is a powerful argument. But it doesn't tell the entire story.
In writing about former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, I had to determine whether Rhee's brash reforms were justified. Rhee's critics said poverty, not ineffective teaching, explained poor student outcomes. Therefore, her reforms were misguided.
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