Urban Schools Need Better Teachers, Not Excuses, to Close the Education Gap

The truth is that America will never fix poverty until it fixes its urban schools.

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Joel I. Klein is chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.

No single impediment to closing the nation's shameful achievement gap looms larger than the culture of excuse that now permeates our schools. Too many educators today excuse teachers, principals, and school superintendents who fail to substantially raise the performance of low-income minority students by claiming that schools cannot really be held accountable for student achievement because disadvantaged students bear multiple burdens of poverty. The favored solution du jour to minority underachievement is to reduce the handicap of being poor by establishing full-service health clinics at schools, dispensing more housing vouchers, expanding preschool programs, and offering after-school services like mental health counseling for students and parents. America will never fix education until it first fixes poverty—or so the argument goes.

In fact, the skeptics of urban schools have got the diagnosis exactly backward. The truth is that America will never fix poverty until it fixes its urban schools.

Antipoverty programs are, of course, an essential part of bolstering our nation's low-income families. But to argue that these programs are the primary solution for improving student achievement is mistaken. Schools can and do make a critical difference, regardless of a child's socioeconomic status. Good teachers, effective principals, and great schools have a far greater impact on the achievement gap than any out-of-school antipoverty initiative.

Is it still an educational handicap to be raised by a single mom or grandmother on food stamps? Yes. An achievement gap shows up even before children start kindergarten—and we should implement effective antipoverty programs to help these families step up the economic ladder. Yet poverty can no longer be the default excuse for giving up on low-income minority students once they start school—and all the more so now that we have an African-American president who was raised by his single mother and grandparents and whose family was forced to go on food stamps on several occasions. 

Neither resources nor demography is destiny in the classroom—and no big-city school district demonstrates those truths more powerfully than the public schools in the nation's capital.

The claim that poverty trumps all in the classroom is belied by the fact that low-income black students in Washington, D.C., are academically behind low-income black students in other cities—in some cases, years behind. In 2007, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's "report card," did a special assessment in 11 big cities. The NAEP results show that low-income black fourth graders in D.C. score about 20 points lower on the NAEP than low-income black fourth graders in Charlotte, N.C., and New York City in both math and reading. To translate that gap into plain English, 10 points on the NAEP scale is roughly equivalent to an extra year of schooling—which suggests that low-income black students in the District are two years behind their black peers in Charlotte and New York City by the time they reach fourth grade.

If the academic achievement of poor black students varies substantially from district to district, the mere fact of being black and poor cannot explain why low-income black students in Washington are years behind their peers in some big cities. By contrast, if extra spending and additional resources really were the antidote for the achievement gap, black students in D.C. should handily outstrip most of their urban peers. With the exception of the Boston school district, D.C. spent more per pupil than any other of the largest 100 school districts in the 2004-05 school year, according to a 2008 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. (Those spending numbers are not adjusted for local differences in the cost of living, but Washington clearly is a well-funded big-city jurisdiction.)

It is true that no city has succeeded in eliminating the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and white students. But a new generation of ambitious charter school networks that includes the KIPP schools, Achievement First, and the Uncommon Schools has succeeded in raising achievement levels among low-income minority students to those of white middle-class students. These new high-performing schools, often called "no-excuses schools," demonstrate that effective principals and talented teachers can create a school culture of accountability to dramatically boost minority performance.