During the eight years I served as chancellor of New York City’s public schools, the naysayers and the apologists for the status quo kept telling me “we’ll never fix education in America until we fix poverty.”
I always thought they had it backward, that “we’ll never fix poverty until we fix education.” Let me be clear. Poverty matters: Its debilitating psychological and physical effects often make it much harder to successfully educate kids who grow up in challenged environments. And we should do everything we can to ameliorate the effects of poverty by giving kids and families the support they need. But that said, I remain convinced that the best cure for poverty is a good education.
And I’m equally convinced that pointing to poverty as an excuse for why we fail to properly educate poor kids only serves to condemn more of them to lives of poverty.
Last week’s test scores in New York City and state demonstrate, once again, that it doesn’t have to be this way. Although the traditional public schools in the city have about the same ratio of poor children—and a significantly smaller ratio of black and Latino children—the charter schools outperformed the traditional schools by 12 points in math and five points in reading. Those are substantial differences.
Even more remarkable, the charter schools slightly outperformed the entire state of New York, which has far fewer poor children and minorities. While the poverty rate for NYC charters is more than 75%, for the state as a whole it is about 50%. Yet the charters beat the state average by 7.2 points in math and were only 3.6 points below in reading. It’s hard to explain how unexpected—and significant—these results are. …
But what really puts the lie to the notion that poverty prevents dramatically better student outcomes than we are now generally seeing in public education is the performance of several individual charter schools or groups of such schools. For example, Success Academies, a charter group whose students are almost 100% minority and about 75% poor, had 97% of the kids at its four schools proficient in math and 88% in English. Miraculously, that’s more than 30% higher in both math and reading than the state as a whole.
The Success schools are performing at the same level as NYC’s best schools—gifted and talented schools that select kids based solely on rigorous tests—even though gifted schools have far fewer low-income and minority students. In short, with a population that is considered much harder to educate, Success is getting champion-league results.
Rest assured, the status-quo, poverty-is-destiny crowd will try to explain away these remarkable results. They will selectively point to small differences and argue that the charter schools are “creaming” the better students, i.e., not accepting kids with greater needs or lower test scores.
But the dramatic difference in results renders these nitpicks trivial. Let’s get real here: If anyone is creaming kids in NYC, it’s the gifted and talented schools that are designed to select kids solely based on performance, not the Success schools or other high-performing charters that are located in high-poverty communities where they admit mostly poor kids based exclusively on lotteries.
So let’s stop the excuse-making and start celebrating the success of the Success schools. And let’s ask ourselves the tough questions: If it is happening in New York City, why isn’t it happening throughout the nation? Why do we tolerate a public education system that fails our neediest kids when we know that significantly better outcomes are possible? …
The teachers at Success work hard, are better compensated than other public school teachers, and move on if they can’t cut the mustard. Unlike most teachers in public schools, they believe they can constantly improve by having others observe them, by learning from each other, and by trying new things. They thrive in a culture of excellence, rather than wallow in a culture of excuse.
This isn’t rocket science, though it is more important to our nation’s future than any rocket out there.