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Learning and Teaching in Scarcity: How High-Stakes 'Accountability' Cultivates Failure

In-school-only reforms will never be the solution for children in high-poverty schools.

Photo Credit: Anawat Sudchanham |


Recent reports on Southern and urban schools are disturbing harbingers about the growing weight being shouldered by U.S. public education: the rise in segregation and a new majority in public school—students living in poverty.

These in-school patterns reflect similar conditions of inequity in the wider society. As Harvard professor of the social sciences Robert J. Sampson recently noted in the New York Times, race and class remain powerful markers for the imbalance of opportunity in the U.S.:

Fifty years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed to African Americans on a “lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” racial and economic disparities by place not only remain but are closely connected. Nationwide, close to a third of African-American children born between 1985 and 2000 were raised in high-poverty neighborhoods compared with just  1 percent of whites. Crucially, income does not erase place-based racial inequality -- affluent blacks typically live in poorer neighborhoods than the average  lower-income white resident.

In the 21st century, the U.S. stands as a stratified society, and public schools tend to reflect that inequity. Moreover, race and class disparities are reflected not only in educational inequity but also the current 30-year cycle of mass incarceration. As Sampson explains:

What many have come to call “mass incarceration” has a local face as well -- only a small proportion of communities have experienced America’s prisoner boom whereas others are relatively untouched. I was taken aback to learn that the highest incarceration rate among African-American communities in Chicago was over 40 times higher than the highest ranked white community. This is a staggering difference of kind, not degree. And it does not go unnoticed, even by children. In one neighborhood I came across a wall behind a school with sketches of the grim faces of black men behind prison bars. An open book and diploma were drawn underneath -- hope to be sure, but against a backdrop of despair.

Children are impacted directly and indirectly by the destiny of their births, in their homes, their communities, and their schools. Yet, most education policies and advocates of those policies represent the belief that in-school-only reform calling for “no excuses” from teachers and schools, as well as “grit” from students—is the sole workable option.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has aligned President Obama’s education agenda with the in-school-only stance— a perspective articulated by educational consultant Grant Wiggins as follows:

My point was merely to ask those who speak only of forces outside of our immediate control as educators to attend to what is not only in our control but can make a big difference….

Teachers and schools make a difference, a significant one. And we are better off improving teaching, learning, and schooling than anything else as educators because that’s what is in our control.

For Duncan and Wiggins, as well as a legion of reformers and elected officials, education reform should address teacher quality, increase choices for parents, implement Common Core (CC) standards, and depend on the “next generation” of high-stakes tests aligned with CC.

In the few years since the start of CC implementation, the narrative and policies among reformers have shifted slightly away from the hardline “ZIP code is not destiny”—likely in response to scholarly and public challenges to CC. Yet they remained mired an ideology that is only marginally different and goes something like this: “poverty matters, but educators and schools must focus on only what educators and schools can control—measurable school and teacher quality.” Considering that re-segregation and rising poverty have plagued public schools during the same three decades as intense accountability-based reform driven by standards and high-stakes testing, it may be well-past time to accept that in-school-only reform is not merely misguided, it is also part of the problem.