When Barack Obama was elected and subsequently named Arne Duncan the Secretary of Education, I had real hope that we’d see meaningful improvement in our schools and communities.

Change we could believe in, right?

But aside from the occasional speech where Bam and Arne say interesting things about promoting innovation or ending testing, the past year has been nothing more than a long series of serious disappointments.  The most recent failure:  Bam’s comments defending the decision of a Rhode Island school board to fire every teacher in a high poverty high school.

Speaking at an event where he promised to send more federal cabbage to districts that shake up their lowest achieving campuses, the wise one said:

“If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability…And that’s what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th-graders passed state math tests — 7 percent.”

See, Bam, here’s the thing:  Is it really just the school that is failing students in high poverty communities year after year after year?

Couldn’t “chronically troubled” be used to describe the neighborhoods of many poor students, too?  Aren’t you ignoring the truth when you place the burden for rescuing children living in poverty completely on the shoulders of classroom teachers?

Let me give you some examples from my own career.  Well over a decade ago, I had a child who was abused by her mother’s boyfriend.  When the social workers got involved, her mother refused to leave her boyfriend despite his complete confession and subsequent incarceration.  Instead, she blamed her daughter for breaking apart their family and turned her over to the state.

Needless to say, that girl failed her exams.  Was I really the one who failed her?

Around the same time, I had another student whose mom and dad sent him to live with a babysitter all week long because they were too busy to care for—or about—him.  They’d drop him off at the sitter on Monday and come back to get him on Friday night.  During the week, he had no contact with them at all.  He was so angry about being abandoned that he’d regularly flip desks and hurl curse words at teachers and other classmates.

He failed his exams too.  Was I really the one who failed him?

I’ve taught more than one child during my career who has been homeless—living in shelters or out of the back of their cars.  I’ve taught more than one child during my career who was responsible for babysitting little brothers and sisters from the time that they got off of the bus to the time that their moms got home from second and/or third jobs.  I’ve taught more than one child during my career who had seen parents or close family members neck-deep in criminal activity during the course of their lives.

I’ve had students arrested for selling drugs.  I’ve had students who’ve died of overdoses.  I’ve had students hospitalized for alcohol poisoning after spending all night stealing booze from their father’s liquor cabinet and partying with friends.

I’ve had students jumped into gangs.  I’ve had students convicted of crimes ranging from assault to homicide—the tragic consequence of living in violent neighborhoods where protecting yourself means hitting before you’re hit.

Most of them failed their exams, too.  Am I really the one who failed them?

I won’t argue that someone needs to be held accountable when students are failing year after year after year.  Bam’s got that right.  But at least SOME of that accountability has to be placed on a society that has intentionally chosen to ignore the plight of the poor.

Asking schools to treat the symptoms of poverty on their own—especially during a time where budgets are being slashed and where social services are becoming scant at best and nonexistent at worst—is just plain ignorant.

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