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Poster Child for 'No Excuses'?

As part of its "Beating the Odds" series, WAMU 88.5 in Washington profiled a resilient recent graduate of D.C. public schools named Jennifer Hightower. The daughter of a drug addict, Hightower describes needing to become self-sufficient—teaching herself to tie her shoes and cook—during a tumultuous and unsafe upbringing.

And in a most memorable quote, she explains how she maintained a 3.9 grade point average despite her trying circumstances: "School was my way of escaping everything. I figured what my mother's doing doesn't have anything to do with my school work so I'm not going to use that as an excuse."

In effect, Hightower's words could be the slogan for the "reform" or "no excuses" side of the ongoing education-policy debate, which holds that effective teaching and schools can trump poverty and inequity. Recent opinion-piece author Casie Jones subscribes to that perspective, along with such well-known figures as former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp.

On the other hand, those who adhere to the "anti-reform" or "pro-union" side—a la Diane Ravitch or Linda Darling-Hammond—might argue that Hightower's exceptional effort and determination were driving factors, not her school or teachers, and that fixing the systemic problem of poverty would make it easier for more students in her situation to succeed.

Whatever side you fall on, the piece is worth listening to—mostly because Hightower is so remarkably honest and upbeat. Spoiler alert: It has a nice ending, too. Hightower made peace with her mother—and will be attending American University in the fall.

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