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 reformcalling 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.

Learning and Teaching in Scarcity

“Poverty is surely the most widespread and important example of scarcity,” explain Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Today, poverty in the U.S. is not just widespread, it is expanding. Despite the rise in poverty, what hasn’t changed are public and political views of poverty and the poor, nor have claims that public institutions such as schools can overcome, alone, negative and powerful social inequity.

For example, stereotypes of people in poverty—such as not appreciating education, being lazy (and thus deserving their poverty), and lacking parenting skills—help perpetuate the belief that schools are reform mechanisms, especially for those in poverty whom we view through a deficit perspective: If only people in poverty had the qualities middle-class and affluent people have, then they would flourish.The logical conclusion of these assumptions? School must give (some) students those qualities they lack.

The stereotype of laziness among the impoverished is especially corrosive for education and education reform since reformers tend to suggest that low student achievement in high-poverty schools is the result of poor students lacking “grit” and their teachers using poverty as an excuse for failure (sometimes called “fatalism” by reformers like Wiggins).

Yet a study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that money in the lives of poor children may be at least as powerful as in-school reform:

The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school or early education program. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.

This contradicts the in-school-only stance of reformers in two ways: first, by showing the effectiveness of addressing poverty directly in order to raise academic achievement, and second, by showing that social reform is likely to enhance in-school reform, if that social reform comes first (and such is the argument of many educators and scholars calling for addressing the opportunity gap in order to close the achievement gap).

However, while money is important, it isn’t, on its own, enough. “The poor are not just short on cash,” Mullainathan and Shafir clarify:

They are also short on bandwidth. This is exactly what we saw in the mall studies and in the harvest studies [discussed earlier in the book]. The same person when experiencing poverty—or primed to think about his monetary troubles—did significantly worse on several tests. He showed less flexible intelligence. He showed less executive control. With scarcity on his mind, he simply had less mind for everything else.

The synthesis and analysis by Mullainathan and Shafir, then, provide a perspective on poverty that exposes the essential failure of in-school only education reform, including the key concepts and terms at the heart of their thesis:

  • “By scarcity, we mean having less than you feel you need”; thus, scarcity is a condition, but not a decision made by anyone or necessarily a consequence of inherent behaviors by anyone. As a result, Mullainathan and Shafirargue, “Scarcity captures the mind.”
  • Bandwidth is the term they use for mental capacity: “Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather, it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth.”
  • While Mullainathan and Shafir admit scarcity can have some short-term benefits (focus), they warn that tunneling is a much greater and negative result of scarcity—“to tunnel: to focus single-mindedly on managing the scarcity at hand.”
  • Mullainathan and Shafircaution against drawing conclusions about personal qualities from behaviors. For example, they show that abundance allows people slack, space that doesn’t force anyone to consider trade-offs. Conversely, scarcity removes slack. In moments of abundance, then, people behave differently than in moments of scarcity. The consequences for people in poverty are much greater, then, than the consequences for people in affluence.

For education reform, understanding the pervasive influence of poverty as an intense form of scarcity requires that weaddress poverty systemically in all children’s lives. In-school-only reform is, therefore, an indirect, and ultimately inadequate, approach to targeting achievement gaps.

In the context of calls for “grit” among poor children and "no excuses" attitudes among teachers and schools, Mullainathan and Shafir’s concept of slack helps show that while policies focusing on grit and no excuses may produce rare and short-term success, the margins are so slim and the behavior is so taxing, that these attitudes will ultimately intensify, not eradicate, low achievement among impoverished students. Evidence, for example, from 20 years of accountability-based reform in Massachusetts shows that such reform measures have been ineffective in closing test score gaps, and high-poverty students remain left behind.

Instead, efforts to afford all students the slack that the affluent enjoy are likely to produce effective and lasting outcomes. Just as Mullainathan and Shafir detail how changing the conditions of scarcity impacts behavior for all people, education reform is likely to succeedonce the conditions of poverty in children’s lives and inequity in their learning are alleviated.

Sarah Carr, journalist and author of Hope Against Hope, which details the rise of no-excuses charters in post-Katrina New Orleans,highlights a move among some schools in New Orleans to offer all children the opportunities the affluent enjoy:

Across the country, the number of charter schools that are diverse by design has been steadily rising in recent years, in cities including New York, Denver, and Washington D.C. Scholars at the Century Foundation in Washington D.C., a nonpartisan research organization, estimate that about two dozen such charters have opened in recent years although they still comprise only a tiny fraction of charter schools….

Josh Densen, the founder of Bricolage Academy in New Orleans, says he has a lot of respect for charter schools targeted at low-income students with the explicit goal of closing the achievement gap.

But “what we saw was one type of school model that was offered to kids living in poverty and a very different school model offered to kids living in affluence,” he said. “And this to me…seemed inherently inequitable.”

Ultimately, according to Mullainathan and Shafir, education reformers must accept, as the reformers above have, that:

One cannot take a vacation from poverty. Simply deciding not to be poor—even for a bit—is never an option….Our data suggest…that poverty—the scarcity mindset—causes failure.

Children in poverty and their teachers cannot simply pretend the impact of scarcity doesn’t exist during the school day. Scarcity and its consequences are engulfing, ever-present, and directly connected to low performance in school.

It’s Slack, Not Grit, That Matters

Finally, the most disturbing aspect of education reform committed to in-school-only policy and no-excuses ideologies is that many of these policies and ideologies create additional types of stress that exacerbate the scarcity already experienced in the lives of impoverished students.

One aspect of the scarcity trap exposed by Mullainathan and Shafirexplores how lonely people portray themselves to potential companions: “Their problem was that they performed badly when they thought it mattered.” Scarcity (loneliness) creates stress, and that stress causes failure. Accountability policies, by their high-stakes nature, similarly increase the likelihood of failure because the punitive consequences for teachers and students increase stress.

Our current era of education reform is characterized by demands that students and teachers do more with less (increasing class sizes, cutting education funding, reducing instruction time that is taken by testing and test-prep), while elevating the stakes attached to teaching and learning—all to improve achievement. But all of these features actually reinforce the disadvantages of scarcity by heightening stress, reducing the cognitive capacity of teachers and students, and in effect, cultivating failure.To that end,what children and adults learning and teaching in high-poverty schools really need are education reform measures that reduce,not heighten, stress.

Broadly, Mullainathan and Shafir’s work shows that living and learning in a state of scarcity or abundance creates predictable behaviors; therefore, traditional assumptions that poverty and wealth are the result of an individuals character and effort are deeply misguided. “The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place,” they write.“Under these conditions, we all would have (and have!) failed.”

In the context of high-stakes,“no excuses” practices, then, many students and teachers are likely to fail, not as a result of a lack of effort or ability, but as a result of the conditions themselves.

The accountability era of in-school-only education reform is built on the premise that students and teachers lack motivation: this is a flawed and corrosive assumption. The affluent live and learn in abundance with adequate slack for risk and failure; those in poverty, however, live and learn within razor-thin margins not of their making and often beyond their control alone to change.

Children from affluent homes and attending affluent schools aren’t succeeding because of grit, but because of the slack created by their relative privilege. And children from impoverished homes, attending high-poverty schools, are not struggling because they lack grit, but because they embody the consequences of scarcity.

As Scarcity details, addressing scarcity in the lives and schools of children directly “can liberate bandwidth, boost IQ, firm up self-control, enhance clarity of thinking, and even improve sleep.”

To make this transition, however, we must shift our accusing gaze away from the people trapped in scarcity and toward social and educational inequity—the conditions of living and learning that drive the outcomes.

If we truly want all children to achieve, education reform must acknowledge that academic success is about slack, not grit.

Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.

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