Are teachers “Making excuses and defending the status quo”?

Consider the following Google searches:

  • “Michelle Rhee and status quo” – About 133,000 results
  • “Bill Gates and status quo” – About 286,000 results
  • “Arne Duncan and status quo” – About 154,000 results

Substitute the word “excuses” for “status quo” and the results don’t change much.  The modern, fashionable education reformer loves to accuse traditional public school teachers of making excuses and defending the status quo.  Let’s take a moment to examine these terms, and how they are used and misused by today’s front-page education reformers.

The overwhelming preponderance of evidence shows that poverty is the single common denominator among struggling students.  Conversely, if we looked only at students from affluent communities this would place U.S. public schools on top of the world. There are reasons for these connections.

Important neural circuits develop during fetal and early childhood years.  Children who experience compromised uterine environments, malnutrition, little to no health care, pollution, domestic violence, and who may never see a book before kindergarten will enter public school with cognitive abilities far different than their more fortunate counterparts in affluent communities.

This is not an excuse, it is a fact.

Research shows that, by the time children reach school age, affluent children know and use about twice as many words as do impoverished children.  This language gap is not caused by public education, but it puts impoverished children at a tremendous disadvantage in all academic areas.  Language is the fundamental tool for all learning – including the learning of language itself.  As such, the language gap only widens over time.  By age 18, what began as a two-fold difference becomes a four-fold difference.

This is not an excuse, it is a fact.

Academic success requires more than just cognitive prowess.  It also requires mental and emotional health.  Pediatric research links early childhood stress to a wide variety of mental and emotional challenges during adolescence.  These include depression, anxiety disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, and a multitude of other dysfunctional behavior patterns and personality disorders; all of which negatively impact learning.

This is not an excuse, it is a fact.

Combine these facts with the reality that a majority of impoverished children will continue to live in poverty throughout their school-age years, and the tragic outcome is unavoidable:  these students cannot and will not experience the same academic successes as their more fortunate counterparts in affluent communities.

These are not excuses, they are facts.  These are accurate and truthful explanations of the origin and persistence of achievement gaps between affluent and impoverished students.

Today’s fashionable, front-page education reformers ignore the effects of poverty.  Instead, they insist that public schools can eliminate the achievement gap but simply choose not to. The solution, therefore, must be to require them to.  The federal No Child Left Behind law makes this position very clear.  But, law or not, this misguided solution is neither realistic nor rational.

Consider a horse-racing analogy.  Place a highly-skilled champion jockey astride an untrained, neglected, malnourished and abused racehorse and watch this team finish dead last.  No amount of blame-and-shame directed at the jockey will make this a winning team.  Nor will any pay-per-win scheme.

Just as a great rider cannot lead a downtrodden horse to victory, good teaching alone is not sufficient to close the academic achievement gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

The achievement gap has at least a five-year head start, and its root causes don’t vanish when a child reaches school age.  Rather, the blades of poverty continue to whittle away at each student’s potential; and the scars are often permanent.  No amount of political rhetoric or well-financed think tank propaganda will change these basic facts.

Public school teachers must give their best to ALL students; regardless of each student’s background or baggage.  Therefore, unless we intend to sabotage our advantaged students, the achievement gap will always exist.  Teachers – and indeed everyone else – must accept the fact that some students will experience greater success than others.    This isn’t about political correctness, fairness, or fairy tales.  It’s about reality.

As teachers, we must refuse to accept blame for factors beyond our control.  This is not a selfish act; as misplaced blame doesn’t just harm teachers. It also harms the students who, as a result, don’t get the kind of support they need.

No rational person would bet on a sickly horse.  But today’s fashionable education reformers ignore the effects of poverty and saddle teachers with 100% responsibility for achievement gaps. Teachers who object to this are accused of “making excuses” and “defending the status quo.”

What is the real status quo in public education?

One of every five U.S. children lives in poverty – the highest child poverty rate of any industrialized western nation.  Federal education policies ensure that the neediest students get the narrowest curriculum; often delivered in the most intense drill-and-test, bore-them-until-they-burst fashion.

Federal grants subsidize patriotic-sounding corporations which, in turn, ensure that the neediest kids get the best teachers a 5-week summer workshop can buy.    These kids – many of whom desperately need stability – get a brand new set of temporary teachers every couple of years.

State budget deficits, stemming from decades of ill-conceived tax policy, provide a handy excuse for massive cuts to our already anemic public education funding.  Cash-strapped states, in turn, prove easy targets for the Federal government to extort corporate-style reforms under the catchy moniker “Race to the Top.”

As resources dwindle, demands continue to climb.  Each year the AYP bar rises, and more schools are labeled “failing” because they can’t manage to do more with less.  Meanwhile, untested subjects like science are pushed aside; narrowing student’s experiences even further.  Predictably, the teacher-bashing crowd now turns to slumping science literacy as further “evidence” of failed teaching.

Teachers who speak out against cuts in public education funding are accused of selfishness and greed; and are often told exactly where to go.

In many states, a well-financed anti-union movements seek to curtail teacher’s rights in political action; and to silence teacher’s voices regarding their own working conditions, salaries, and benefits.

Low pay, low autonomy, and a groundswell of scapegoating leads half of all new teachers to leave the profession within five years.  And these trends certainly don’t help attract new talent to the profession.

Next time you hear someone bashing teachers, check their sources and their motivations. Anyone who says public school teachers make excuses and defend the status quo has either been misled or is attempting to mislead.

Dave Reber has taught high school biology for fifteen years. He is from Lawrence, Kansas.

Comments (5)

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. If policy makers begin to pay teachers based on the test scores of their students, there will be a mass exodus of teachers leaving the profession, especially when the economy improves, with no new talent coming in. These crazy teacher blaming policies will ruin our educational system even more.

    • So what you are trying to say is that you poor students can’t learn? Are you saying that teachers can’t help these children catch up? Are you seriouse? Sudents are in school from 8 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. Teachers spend enough time ti make a difference. And I believe that childrens’ brain is ALWAYS READY TO LEARN. You can’t say that poor children don’t eat because schools provide fee lunches. And yes, teacher can go that extra mile to guide parents as to how to challenge their chidlren at home. Yes, I do believe it an EXUSE ON THE TEACHERS PART. Not any one can serve as a teacher…If you are in it for the money just leave and let other true caring teacher take your place.

      • You clearly don’t get into schools much. There are so many false assumptions in your reply. No one says poor students can’t learn (many do very well) or wont’ try (most do, especially with the right teachers and good instruction). But don’t for one minute think that school can trump a dysfunctional home life over the years. Or make up for the 5 year development gap that creates a race in which children start at different starting lines. A “free lunch” (such that it is, and most public school lunches are abysmal) is the only meal for some children. Teachers going the extra mile? I see them do it regularly — get out there and talk to teachers. It’s enlightening.

  2. You betcha. See also the physiological impact of childhood stress in articles by Gary W. Evans inclluding his piece in the Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences at

  3. Poverty is to general a term. I belive a child in poverty with two parents does better in education than a child with just a single parent ,and this unfotunately is the trend today. Am I right or wrong?

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