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The current debate between business-minded reformers like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York and former Washington, D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee and their critics has often been set up as a fight over whether policymakers should tackle poverty or not as they attempt to improve student achievement.

educational reform

Last week, Michael Petrilli, vice president at the Fordham Institute, usually found staunchly on the side of reformers who support charter schools and more accountability for schools and teachers, seemed to call for a truce. In a panel at the annual Education Writers Association conference at Stanford University (which I moderated), he suggested that No Excuses reformers were softening their schools-only approach.

The research both sides rely on—dating back to James Coleman’s famous federally-commissioned study on educational opportunity in the sixties—suggests that the largest factors affecting how a child performs in school have to do with his or her family circumstances. These out-of-school factors include parent education levels, poverty status, being part of a group that has faced discrimination, and neighborhood conditions, among other important but sociologically complex characteristics.

Schools have a smaller role to play, according to the research. But the current crop of reformers has insisted that with the right tools and strategies, schools might trump the disadvantages of poverty, minority-status, and less-educated parents. This belief in the power of good schools to disrupt the cycle of poverty has partly fueled the recent movement to overhaul the teaching profession so that the quality of teachers—the biggest factor impacting students inside schools—can be improved particularly for disadvantaged students.

Critics of this school-focused approach, including Diane Ravitch, the historian and former assistant U.S. secretary of education, have argued that schools should not be expected to go it alone. Rather, they argue, policymakers should devote more attention and resources to attacking the societal problems that set up children to fall behind their peers in the first place.

Previously, among the reformers, there was a concern that talking too much about the problems of poverty would allow schools to wash their hands of responsibility for their students’ success or failure. Now, Petrilli suggested, people on his side are taking a second look at this assumption.

“We need to stop having these extreme arguments, between ‘No excuses!’ on one side and ‘It’s all about poverty!’ on the other,” he wrote today in a blog post published on Education Week’s website. “Poverty matters immensely. Schools matter immensely. Let’s get on with addressing both.”

Don’t start the chorus of “Kumbaya” yet, however.

In a responding blog post, Diane Ravitch bristled at the suggestion that she did not believe schools matter.

“I do believe that the dramatic income inequality in this country burdens children, nearly a quarter of whom live in poverty. I do think it is a national scandal that our nation has a higher proportion of children in poverty (about 23%) than any other advanced nation,” she wrote. “But I have never said that schools can do nothing to improve the education of poor children until we redistribute income or raise the minimum wage, etc. I have said and written on many occasions that we must improve schools and improve the lives of children at the same time.”

It might seem that both sides are saying the same thing: To make a real difference in the lives of children who struggle to keep up with their more advantaged peers because of both outside circumstances that hold them back and low quality schools that don’t give them an extra hand to catch up, we should address both problems simultaneously.

But there are still many quibbles about both tone and the substance of what exactly should be done to get such a two-pronged strategy off the ground. In heated blog and email exchanges today, Petrilli, Ravitch and others on both sides of the debate argued about whether teaching disadvantaged children more vocabulary and providing a more enriched curriculum would make up for the educational experiences they lack at home, or whether a more sweeping effort to redistribute resources is critical for reducing the achievement gap for poor children.

There have been a few hints of common ground. Reformers like Petrilli and current D.C. schools chancellor Kaya Henderson have talked lately about the importance of promoting more economic and racial diversity in schools—a subject also dear to advocates who argue more must be done to level the playing field outside of school walls. And Randi Weingarten, president of the second largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, has crossed battle lines to work with reformers on new teacher evaluations and launching the Common Core State Standards.

But should we expect an armistice in the education reform war in the near future? Maybe not.

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