Let's imagine that our schools can help the average child born into poverty do somewhat better. Let's say that with a combination of talented and well-trained teachers, a rich and rigorous curriculum, lots of supports, and strong leadership, we're able to get poor students, on average, to a 10th-grade level by the time they graduate high school. Suddenly they can attend a community college, or even a four-year university, without starting in remedial education. They are much more likely to graduate, at least with an associate's degree or a technical credential. Rather than making minimum wage, they will make a living wage.
They are less likely to get pregnant as teens, or end up in prison, or drop out of the workforce. Their children wouldn't be born poor—they would be born middle class. This would be transformative.
Notice the key assumption built into this "theory of action": reading and math matter a lot. Getting to the 10th-grade level instead of the 8th-grade level (even as measured by rinky-dinky standardized tests) would make a meaningful difference in real lives. With that assumption in place, it's not crazy—in fact, it's perfectly rational—to hold schools accountable for helping their students make progress every year with their reading and math skills. It's smart to put in place clear, high standards—let's call them common-core standards—that will delineate the path from poverty to prosperity, that will help schools and teachers focus on the knowledge and skills that matter most, and will get students to true readiness for college and career by the age of 18.
So Deborah, are you ready for the big question, the kicker, the heart of the matter?
The key assumption, the kicker, the heart of the matter is, would there be jobs paying a living wage for all these community college graduates? Even the kids who pick exactly right and get, say, the exact kind of welding certification that is needed when they graduate, how secure is a job like that now? Think it'll last 10 years? Do you know how mediocre the pay for those jobs is now even though the employers can't fill them? Think about how much less they'd pay if there was a glut of newly certified applicants.
And that's leaving out the fact that all the jobs that are currently held by the working poor still have to be done by somebody. Are we going to massively expand low-wage immigration to make up for the ever increasing pool of jobs native-born Americans "won't do?" And then, once our awesome new education system gets their children through college, will we have to import a whole new batch of immigrants for the next generation of service workers?
The typical high-poverty school is, and has always been, pretty mediocre. That's not an indictment of the people who work in these schools; the problem is the system. And it's not unique to education. Any big, bureaucratic government agency is going to struggle to achieve effectiveness, much less excellence. (Think the DMV.) Heck, even most large, private-sector companies are pretty lame, especially ones that don't face much competition. (Think the electric company.) Layer on top of that all of the distracting demands placed upon schools, the fragmented nature of education governance, and, in some places at least, too few resources, and it would be a miracle if the typical high-poverty public school were good, much less great.
Yes, "the typical high-poverty school is, and has always been, pretty mediocre," BECAUSE OF THE HIGH-POVERTY. If the problem was "the system," all of our schools would be equally bad, and in fact, all the schools everywhere would be bad, because "the system" per se isn't that different around the world.
If the argument has to end up with "and pretty much all large organizations suck anyway, so whatever," you're losing.