Executive Perspective

Guess Who’s Left Behind?

by Paul D. Houston

Early September 2005 brought the announcement that for the fourth year in a row the percentage of people living in poverty in America has increased. In fact, America continues to lead the developed world in the percentage of citizens living in poverty. You may have missed this because it occurred the same week as Hurricane Katrina.

While recriminations are still flying as to “who lost New Orleans,” some things are clear — the horror was exacerbated by poverty, and those charged with prevention and action were woefully inept at dealing with it. In our society, those who are in charge tend to have money and those who don’t have money are at their mercy.

Had the circumstances not been so tragic, some of the reactions would have been laughable. Some people couldn’t understand why they just didn’t leave, as if the notion that poor people didn’t have cars was unthinkable. Some say people stayed behind just so they could loot. It is clear that many who were seen as looters were simply getting necessities for survival — made necessary by the government’s inability to intercede on their behalf.

Much has been made about the issue of racism in all this, but the greater issue was that of class. It is just that in many of our urban areas, race and class intertwine in a downward double helix of hopelessness.

Justifying Neglect
The fact is our government doesn’t do “poor” very well. Its economic focus has been on reducing taxes, particularly for the upper income range, and providing supports for large corporations. As long as the poor aren’t causing trouble, they are invisible.

We justify this neglect by believing there isn’t anything we can do — the poor always will be with us. Some even see the poor as being poor by choice. I have heard people say, “If they would just work harder and get a better education, they could be successful like the rest of us.” This model ignores the structural issues of poverty and tends to blame the victim for his victimization.

This raises the issue of education and the poor. We are now in the fourth year of implementing the No Child Left Behind law, which is built around a massive accountability model. Given the ineptitude our government showed after Katrina, it would appear the government is better at holding others accountable than holding itself accountable. The president and two education secretaries have excoriated those who question the law as exhibiting the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” as if expectations alone will solve the contextual issues surrounding schools and children. This logic after Katrina would have the poor being expected to swim faster and harder.

While there is no doubt some educators believe poor children cannot learn, many more desperately want to see them learn but realize there is a hard bigotry of high expectations with inadequate resources. Talking about closing the achievement gap without talking about poverty is like planning a trip to the moon but not wanting to acknowledge gravity.

Sadly, if you raise this issue you risk being criticized for making excuses and then examples of heroic exceptions are tossed at you. But heroic exceptions do not change reality. Katrina showed heroic actions by individual government employees, but the system was broken. We know Abraham Lincoln was raised in a log cabin and went on to become president, but we also know that most folks raised in log cabins do not become president and, in fact, it is much more likely that being raised in the compound at Hyannis or Kennebunkport offers a smoother glide path to the White House.

Confronting Reality
Author Jim Collins suggests the first step to greatness is to “confront the brutal facts.” Clearly, that did not happen around Katrina, and it’s not happening in education today. The facts are that we have millions of children existing on the margins of our society without the support and the care necessary to live or learn successfully. The schools trying to serve these children are physically and fiscally inundated. We have a profession that is described by the adage that “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach,” and we wonder why a shortage of highly qualified teachers exists. We must get out of the muck and mud by confronting the brutal facts of our existence.

My mother used to tell me that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Our government should pay heed to this simple motherly advice. With Katrina, there was an unwillingness to spend tens of millions to shore up levees replaced by the need for tens of billions to pay for the damage caused by those levees breaking. With schools we know that early childhood education, good early medical care and solid nutrition make for more successful learners. Rather than putting money there, we put it into prisons after they are unsuccessfully educated, drop out and commit crimes.

Katrina was an object lesson that it’s all about systemic thinking. You have to deal with food, safety, mental health and facilities all at the same time. If one piece breaks down, they all do. In education, truly leaving no child behind calls all parts to be dealt with at the same time. Creating a nation of successful learners requires that all aspects of their learning be addressed, not just the creation of a coercive assessment system. High expectations must be leavened with support and compassion.

Finally, we cannot prevent the next disaster or fix the ongoing educational challenges by blame. Coercion, blame and shame will not create a lasting solution. For a nation to find its greatness from disaster and a society to fulfill the potential of its children, support, affirmation and trust must abound.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.