The Heritage Foundation has a simple message in our No Excuses book on high-performing, high-poverty schools: Study success.
The failure of most public schools to teach low-income children is a national scandal. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 58 percent of low-income 4th graders cannot read and 61 percent of low-income 8th graders cannot multiply two-digit numbers.
At Heritage, we decided to look for educators who have solved this problem. We found 21 schools where at least 75 percent of students are low-income, and which boast median math or reading scores of at least the 65th percentile on national achievement tests. Seven of these schools are religious, private, or charter schools. Most are neighborhood public schools. These schools set a standard that other schools serving low-income children should be expected to meet—or at least to aspire to.
Mitchell Pearlstein is right of course that family structure, youth culture, and the motivation of individual students have an enormous impact on academic achievement. He’s also right to suggest that, by comparison with public schools, religious schools offer distinctive advantages in strengthening students’ character. But that’s no excuse for the failure of most public schools to teach low-income children. No Excuses schools do teach them, and they do it precisely by reshaping the culture of both students and teachers. The education system can learn several things from them.
First, No Excuses principals reject the ideology of victimhood that dominates most public discussion of race and academic achievement. They don’t dumb down tests and courses for black and Hispanic children; instead they prove that children of all races and income levels can take tough courses and succeed. They recognize that some children may learn at different paces, but they make sure that all children master key subjects, especially reading, math and fluency in the English language. They test constantly, for tests are the best way to determine whether every child is learning.
Second, No Excuses schools all have great leadership—not necessarily charismatic leadership, but strong leadership rigorously focused on student achievement. High-performing principals have a number of distinctive competencies. Many are superb at working with parents and enlisting their active support for the school’s mission. Others are skilled administrators and problem-solvers who stretch the dollars in their meager budgets and create happy, orderly environments in old worn-down buildings. But above all what distinguishes the No Excuses principals is their skill in finding, training, and bringing out the best in teachers. (And guess what: They usually don’t find these teachers in schools of education.)
Finally, No Excuses principals enjoy unusual freedom to make important decisions for their schools. They hire and fire teachers. They set their own budgets. In some cases they choose the curriculum. Charter-school principals are given this freedom explicitly in their charters. But high-performing public-school principals must take this freedom. They must find ways to free themselves from many of the personnel regulations, line-by-line budget requirements, and curricular mandates that hamstring most public-school principals.
If we want to attract exceptional leaders to high-poverty schools, we have to free principals from micromanagement, and give them all the freedom No Excuses principals have enjoyed. Principals can excel if they are given the opportunity to do their jobs as they see fit—while being held strictly accountable for academic achievement.
Ultimately, I think Mitchell is too pessimistic. Yes, the collapse of the family seriously hurts achievement. Yes, there are perverse cultural incentives that penalize students who study hard. But the miseducation of low-income children is a problem that has been solved: No Excuses schools show that children of all races and income levels can learn. They have achieved this success in spite of, not because of, the incentive system and culture of public education. If we reshape the incentives and culture of public education, we can make No Excuses-level performance the rule rather than the exception in low-income neighborhoods.
Adam Meyerson is vice president for educational affairs at the Heritage Foundation.