The Delusional Contradictions of “No Excuses” Reform and Poverty

EduSanity is pleased to share a piece from our first invited guest writer, Dr. P.L. Thomas from Furman University. Thomas’ writing has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, and pretty much everywhere else. He will lecture at the University of Arkansas on October 18th and brings an important message about poverty and education and how specifically, the concepts are intertwined.


There’s a haunting lyrics in The National’s “Daughters of the Soho Riots” (Alligator): “How can anybody know/How they got to be this way.”

The question speaks, although not intentionally or directly, to the arrogance at the core of the “No Excuses” education reform claim as it addresses poverty. Like the failed two-party political system in the U.S., the education reform agenda is mired in delusion and negligence—delusion from the “No Excuses” Reformers (NER) and negligence by the progressive status quo of public education. The critical and radical Social Context Reform (SCR) voice remains primarily marginalized and silenced.

Social Context Reform, in fact, is captured succinctly by Martin Luther King Jr. in his Final Words of Advice: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

And this represents as well the foundational source of the delusion perpetuated by NER who hold the political power (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), the wealth (Bill Gates), and the media spotlight (Michelle Rhee) that overwhelm SCR. Let’s, then, consider NER delusions.

• Is the U.S. a meritocracy? For the NER, the answer is yes, but the evidence reveals otherwise. In society and in schools, people and children tend to remain in the disadvantage or advantage of their births. The U.S. is distinctly not a country that rewards merit, but the NER speak with and to this myth in order, ironically, to maintain the status quo of privilege and austerity in the country and its schools.

• Is poverty destiny? A rallying slogan for NER is “poverty is not destiny,” but again this saying ignores that poverty is destiny, just as affluence is destiny. Further, NER have directly claimed that a child’s ZIP code does not determine that child’s opportunity to learn—despite the overwhelming evidence children are trapped by the accident of where they are born. The home, community, and school any child happens to experience due to factors that child has not determined are powerfully linked to the opportunities and outcomes of that child’s learning.

• Should we aspire to the template of the rugged individual? The Ayn Rand cartoon version of rugged individualism is compelling for Americans, trapped in a belief culture, and NER manipulate that delusional faith in the rugged individual to perpetuate the harsh and judgmental tenets of “no excuses” school practices—such as extended school days, extensive homework, test-based accountability for students and teachers, zero tolerance discipline policies, and contract-based admissions to selective charter schools. Though compelling, no one actually succeeds without some (or a great deal) communal support, some accident of privilege, or the disregarded and trivialized advantages offered by the commons (see Malcolm Gladwell’s unmasking of the rugged individualism myth in Outliers).

• Is anyone defending the public school status quo? Strawman arguments are common among NER with the status quo slur being central to that tactic. Progressives are clearly a part of the status quo, but the arguments coming from the SCR movement are voices that have long called for significant and even radical education reform. While the NER policies entrench inequity by directly mentioning poverty, the SCR calls for reform seek to change society and schools for democracy, equity, and agency.

• Is anyone using poverty as an excuse? By implication and even directly, NER perpetuate this strawman argument to reinforce the status quo charge; yet, I have yet to witness any SCR teacher or scholar who moves from offering the fact of poverty overwhelmingly impacting student outcomes to seeing that reality as fatalistic, and thus an excuse for slovenly teaching or inequitable schools. More common, I have found, is that teachers maintain their genuine commitment to teaching despite the tremendous evidence that they rarely make a measurable impact on their students (since numbers mean far less to most educators than to NER).

• Are teacher quality and union influence the primary roadblocks to education overcoming the weight of poverty in student learning? NER narratives are embedded in many layers of the media—from uncritical journalism to partisan political discourse to popular media such as Waiting for “Superman” and Don’t Back Down. Two elements of that narrative have been the myth of the bad teacher and the corruption of unions and tenure. The teacher quality strawman is a mask for the real teacher quality issue facing schools: Affluent children receive the best and most experienced teachers while impoverished children, children of color, ELL students, and special needs students disproportionately are assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers (increasingly Teach for America recruits). The union/tenure charade is also a mask that hides the more powerful correlation with student outcomes—poverty. Unionized states have higher test scores than right-to-work states, but that data hide the deeper connections to poverty entrenched in those non-union states. As long as NER can keep the public and political leaders gazing at “bad” teachers, lazy tenured teachers, and corrupt unions, poverty and inequity remain untouched and the privileged status quo intact.

• Have choice broadly and charter schools narrowly revealed effective alternatives for addressing poverty and inequity? Market forces respond to capital, and thus are ill-suited to address inequity; market forces, in fact, appear to fail despite the NER faith in parental choice. Charter schools also have produced few differences when compared to public schools (or even private schools), but are re-segregating education.

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” she presents an allegory of privilege, a narrative that exposes how privilege exists upon the back of oppression:

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” (Le Guin, 1975, p. 282)

NER in education maintains the delusion that privilege can somehow be separated from inequity. SCR, however, seeks to pull aside the myth in order to pursue the dream of King in which we continue to seek equity in society and schools in the U.S.—by genuine social reform then wedded to educational reform.



suggested citation:
Thomas, P.L. (2012, October 9). The delusional contradictions of “no excuses” reform and poverty. EduSanity. Retrieved from…rm-and-poverty/ ‎