Marc Mannella, CEO of KIPP Philadelphia Schools, prides himself on openness. But there is one question about education he declines to answer directly: Can good schools alone close the achievement gap that finds poor students and those of color lagging behind their counterparts in educational attainment?
Like a tightrope walker balancing over the wildly complicated landscape of American schooling, Mannella is wary of anything that will break his staff's concentration on reaching KIPP's goal: college for every one of its students, who are primarily Black, Latino, and poor.
"Of course, poverty is a factor" affecting student achievement, he says. "But it's never an excuse around here." For Mannella, whose organization runs two charters in Philadelphia, suggesting that there are issues beyond a school's control is the first step down a very slippery slope, for students and teachers alike.
"You may be bouncing between homeless shelters," he says, "but you still have to do your homework."
Like many other educators who have seen the movie "Waiting for 'Superman'," Mannella praises it for showing the dark side of the country's educational system, the existence of schools in which the odds of student success are very slim. The power of the film, he said, "is that people are talking…It puts a human face on what those of us on the ground know is happening."
Other educators and critics express concern that the "No Excuses" movement, embodied by organizations like KIPP, Mastery and others, diverts attention from the need to address systemic problems of poverty.
In October, Joel Klein, then chancellor of the New York City schools, and Michelle Rhee, his then-counterpart in Washington, D.C., issued a "manifesto" suggesting that poor teaching was the most significant factor in low student achievement. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute counterattacked.
He said that by ignoring non-school factors, the manifesto's signers were contributing to a political "paralysis" that is preventing the country from dealing with poverty's debilitating impact. Instead, Rothstein said, the signers "should … protest against economic policies that doom children to failure."
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, originally listed as a co-signer of the Rhee-Klein manifesto, later said she had not read the final version and withdrew her support. She said in a letter to The Washington Post: "The truth is our public schools have been asked not only to educate children but also to solve many of the ills that the larger society either cannot or will not fix. I am speaking of issues directly related to poverty."
In 2008, a taskforce convened by EPI issued "A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education," saying there was "no evidence that school improvement strategies, by themselves, can substantially, consistently and sustainably" close achievement gaps. Around the same time a group called The Education Equality Project said that it is possible to close the achievement gap by providing a good teacher for every child and making schools more accountable.
The Obama administration has feet in both camps. While pushing policies to get rid of ineffective teachers and turn around low-performing schools, it has also established the Promise Neighborhood program, which seeks to provide health and social services and better schools for children and families in selected communities. It is modeled on Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone.
Canada was a leading voice in "Waiting for 'Superman'." The film stressed his criticism of public schools but gave no hint of his multi-pronged attack on poverty through his neighborhood work.
Universal Community Homes in South Philadelphia received a $500,000 federal planning grant in September to develop a Promise Neighborhood. Its president and CEO, Rahim Islam, says that a comprehensive approach is needed.
"You have to work with the product that comes in the door," he said. "Schools can't function in isolation. You have to rebuild neighborhoods."
Islam, whose organization started a charter school but is also managing turnarounds at two Renaissance Schools, said a wider neighborhood approach necessitates working with existing schools rather than just starting new ones.
"You can't just replace a whole student population, a parent population or a community and teachers and an administration," he said.
KIPP finds it more effective to start new schools, gradually establishing a culture of success.
One of Ackerman's predecessors, David Hornbeck, argued vociferously that more resources and a more holistic approach were necessary to educate children in poverty. He set up school clusters with both Teaching and Learning offices and Family Resource Centers.
At the same time, Hornbeck, who led the system from 1994 to 2000, said that his conviction that impoverished students needed more services didn't translate to saying that schools in poor neighborhoods shouldn't be accountable.
Some point out that helping young people break out of a poverty cycle requires more than a focus on academic achievement. Jonathan Garr, a 6th grade math teacher at Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia, noted that even if schools raise test scores, it might not be enough. Kids immersed in neighborhoods plagued by poverty and violence "could end up making the same poor life decisions that they would have made anyway" without additional support and guidance, he said.
Garr, a 26-year-old African American man, grew up in a middle class neighborhood in suburban Washington, D.C., a self-described "smart, bad kid" who got good grades. He says he doubts he would have been as successful if he had grown up in a high-poverty neighborhood.
So if poverty is a factor in low academic performance, how much does it amount to?
In her article "The Myth of Charter Schools" in The New York Review of Books – perhaps the best-known critique of "Waiting for 'Superman'" – education historian Diane Ravitch cites research by economist Dan Goldhaber that about 60 percent of achievement is explained by non-school factors, such as family income.
"So while teachers are the most important factors within schools ... it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens," she wrote.
Mannella, interviewed in his office at the new KIPP school in West Philadelphia, said that as far as the figures quoted by Ravitch went, "I'm not sure I can quantify it. And I'm not sure I really want to know.
"We'll never be able to replace a parent," he said. "But we'll never allow that to become an excuse, either."