Exclusive Commentary

Ending Poverty through Education, By Michelle Rhee, Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools

- What Will it Take? Posted February 8th, 2010


“I remember in elementary school did you guys do this? switching clothes every other morning with my best friends. That way nobody could tell we each only had one pair of jeans and a t-shirt.” Heads nodded in recognition at this meeting of DC public school seniors reflecting on their early years.

Students in our public schools are my best sources on what it is like to strive in a school system that has not given them an equal shot in life. With 70 percent of them receiving a free or reduced-price lunch and with DC’s child poverty rate well above the national average, poverty is a mountain that children in our nation’s capital climb daily.

This particular group of students had beaten the odds, and they were advancing to college. But they worried that they were unprepared. With only 9 percent of our entering high school freshmen graduating from college within 5 years of high school, and an unemployment rate that has more than doubled with the recession, they were right to be concerned.

I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education’s power to reverse generational poverty. But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today’s problems in urban education.

“Make private schools illegal,” he said, “and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.” Think about what this would mean. CEOs’ children, diplomats’ children, many would be going to schools in Anacostia and east of the river, where most of our schools are. I guarantee we would never see a faster moving of resources from one end of the city to the other. I also guarantee we would soon have a system of high-quality schools.

As the leader of a school system in a privileged country, I know we cannot have the same conversation about poverty in developing nations as we can about urban and rural poverty in the United States. But when we ask what it will take to ensure that no child anywhere has to “beat the odds” to have viable future choices, the answer is the same whether we are in Washington, DC or in a brave Haiti enduring disaster from a poverty-stricken stance. The obstacle is not one of knowledge but of social and political will, with education as the lynchpin.

On global poverty, economist and author Jeffrey Sachs created a splash with his argument that we can solve the problem of poverty in our lifetimes. In The End of Poverty, he cites examples of success in communities all over the developing world, showing what works in empowering communities and building foundations for prosperity.

Examples of extraordinary success also exist here in Washington, DC, a district that is improving to become more competitive every year. For example, under a new principal at one school, student reading proficiency went from 24 percent to 85 percent in just four years, and from 10 percent to 64 percent in math. In another, only 9 percent of the students were on grade level, when just down the street in a successful charter school, over 90 percent of students were. Same kids, same neighborhoods and exposure to violence, same poverty, hunger, and parent education levels. At the successful schools, the primary difference was the team of adults who decided it was possible for lives and outcomes to move in other directions.

What is keeping us from bringing such examples to scale is not a lack of solutions but a frailty of belief. We can absolutely replicate and expand success, and poverty does not have to mean low achievement and expectations.

I love the way Sachs described what it will take to end global poverty. Citing an experience in Western Kenya, he concluded a lecture on his book with a focus not on operational shifts but with a shift in our mindset.

We can end poverty, he said, “if we understand that we are dealing with people fighting for their lives…with people whose first objective is not to take our money but to see their children survive…with people that work harder than we can imagine to make something out of nothing…who in the midst of an AIDS pandemic, malaria endemic, and chronic hunger can put 37 out of 37 eighth graders through success on the 8th grade exam because they have that much social capital.”

It will still take courage to change the beliefs that are keeping children and families in poverty. Many leaders are starting to show that courage, putting children before political interest in their decisions and policies, and preserving funding for education even when longstanding results will not come until years after the next election.

For example, we have a Democratic president who is backing ideas (such as choice and competition) for their impact instead of the political party that claims them. President Obama is a huge supporter of charter schools and is letting competition drive the allocation of $4 billion in Race to the Top dollars he added to education. His administration is pledging to use it for districts introducing commonsense practices such as teacher assessment that includes student achievementanother idea he has not been afraid to embrace just because Republicans support it.

Nowhere is it more important than education to put politics last, and this is no easy feat. But I am encouraged by the ways it is happening nationally and in cities with courageous mayors who are prioritizing education. DC, New York, and Atlanta are showing results of this kind of leadership already, and I believe it is just the beginning.

For many individuals who work with children, courage will mean changing a long-standing mindset that has excused us from holding high expectations for all children. In the DC Public Schools in 2007, performance evaluations had not been conducted for years in our central office, and teachers did not have clear guidelines about what we believed good teaching even looks like. Yet to educate all children well in any system, staff need the courage to participate in conversations about their performance that are tied to job security.

There is no doubt that poverty drags multiple obstacles into schools with children, and these obstacles are extremely challenging to overcome. It can feel like climbing a mountain every day, both for children and the adults who are teaching them. But there are successful mountain climbers. As we follow their examples in larger numbers, we will create well-worn paths of success. Mountains will be reduced to hills, and hills to level ground as all children become poised for life choices that can compete with their imaginations.

Michelle Rhee is Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools