Mr. Duncan: Poverty is Real, Not an “Excuse”

I made the comments further below to a blog post by Mike Klonsky titled The Year They Began Calling Poverty and Homelessness an ‘Excuse’.  Read his post, it speaks to the irrational thoughts and actions sweeping our nation in the guise of educational reform.  Since my comment was constrained to a word limit, I expand on it in the next paragraph.

It is a shame politicians, billionaires, and those aligned with the latter, as well as the misinformed and misguided, believe that the primary responsibility for our nation’s educational challenges rest on teachers.  While they are a significant factor, they are neither the sole nor the key factor.  The student, and his/her family, is the most significant factor in the student’s educational achievement, all of which is directly affected by their socioeconomic status.  When students and their families struggle with the basic necessities of life, especially if they have no experience in college, it is no surprise that homework and studying fall to the bottom of life’s daily chores.  Students need the space and time to grow as learners, as well as to understand the most effective behaviors and practices to succeed in school.  If parents cannot offer the needed space and time, or educational support, then society needs to make these available.  Only then will we see educational achievement improve across socioeconomic status, and not sooner.


Insightful post, Mike.  I am saddened by the inability of the current administration, specifically Arne Duncan, to highlight and to address the woes facing our nation’s educational system.  As a former engineer / product manager / marketeer, who spent inordinate amounts of time developing methods to collect, analyze, and improve multi-factored systems (technical, product, business), it is clear to me that we have the knowledge and means to identify the primary factors for success in school.  In fact, the most significant factors have already been identified, along with what impacts those factors; the administration’s rhetoric sadly obfuscates reality, impedes tangible progress, and provides tremendous disservice to our nation.

As you aptly point out, poverty and its associated effects are not “excuses” but brutal reality.  Until the administration shines a bright light on poverty, and develops effective programs where students of poverty receive intensive interventions, to include bringing parents into the classroom and their children’s learning.  Until this happens, all the other efforts championed by the admin are doomed to failure and are a massive waste of time and money.  This is not to condemn the efforts, per se, for many hold great promise.  However, unless the PRIMARY factor is addressed first, no amount of improvement in the other factors such as teacher effectiveness, curriculum, funding, and etcetera will matter.  They are akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Trite sayings, dismissive gestures, and shotgun strategies from the administration, and by association those influenced by it who simply mimic the rhetoric, only serve to worsen our nation’s educational plight.  We expect more from President Obama, Arne Duncan, and this administration.  Activity should not be confused with progress.  Honesty, focus, commitment, these are needed to turn the tide.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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3 Responses to Mr. Duncan: Poverty is Real, Not an “Excuse”

  1. Helen Towers says:

    As you know we are now in India, where the American dream seems alive and well! The current lack of hope, not poverty per sae, I think is part of the problem with education in the US. Take my maid (works 5 1/2 days a week for less than $200 a month) but believes there is a better future out there for her daughter – who at just 4 knows all her letters and numbers. The thought that with education, her daughter can achieve all her dreams gives education an important role in her family. Our driver can speak 5 languages.
    We pass kids in the mornings smiling on their way to public school, with government provided uniforms and no shoes, some of them walk a long way bare foot to be educated and fed. The dreams of the parents pass the enthusiasm and drive to their kids. Do the 15 million unemployed in the US have any dreams to drive their kids forward? Can they see a good future for their kids, even with a good education?


    • Hi Helen. Give my best to Simon and the boys. I agree that hope is an integral element. I think we must have been on the same brain wavelength since I wrote two other posts today one of which included the following quote: “Hope must exist, and be realistically achievable for these communities to make a sustained effort at achieving success for their children.”

      Sadly, in the US, SES and hope are negatively correlated for many, but not all. My wife and her four brothers all came from low SES and all five are college graduates, one with a masters. Their hard work ethic and founts of hope from prayer sustained them through their tough times. It is something that is doable if one tries to have faith and rise above their circumstances, as you so aptly point out.



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