Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Sleeping Giant

The blog Lunatic Laboratories has an great summary of an interesting paper in The Journal of Child Maltreatment titled, "Self-Criticism as a Mechanism Linking Childhood Maltreatment and Maternal Efficacy Beliefs in Low-Income Mothers With and Without Depression".

The study found that mothers who experienced more types of abuse as children–sexual abuse, physical or emotional abuse, and physical or emotional neglect–have higher levels of self-criticism, and therefore greater doubt in their ability to be effective parents....
Prior research has found that a mother’s confidence is closely linked to her motivation to use positive child-rearing strategies.
My comments on the blog are as follows:

I provide ABA services to many low-income mothers who might be described well by this article. However, (and if you're familiar with the radical behaviorist perspective, you'll know this) we don't go in for such mentalistic talk of "sense of self-efficacy".  Not to say we wouldn't agree with the basic premise.  But try this: mom's history of reinforcement hasn't taught her the requisite skills.  The difference between those who are able to implement correct strategies in stressful situations versus those who aren't won't be doing so because they "feel more self-efficacious", but rather that they have simply attained fluency.  I.e. they have practiced and learned these skills so that they can use them despite difficult setting events.  For instance, if I have a headache (or worrying about the bills, my boss, the broken car, etc.), playing a piano song will be more difficult.  But if I am fluent, I will be able to engage in the behavior.

An absolute failure of society right now is adequate delivery of treatment services to mothers in need such as these.  In California, if your child has an autism diagnosis, health insurance companies are mandated to cover behavioral services.  Based on need, these can range from 8-15 hours per week.  The amount of progress children make is nothing short of astounding.  Kids learn to speak, to communicate their desires, to label items and hold conversations.  However, much of our work is also in parent training. 

Where this becomes interesting is in multi-child households where parent-child interactions are often dysfunctional, i.e. maladaptive behaviors are reinforced and appropriate behaviors are punished.  I am not paid to provide services for the rest of the family, but a great benefit of our services is that the same strategies parents learn to use with their special-needs children are those they should be using with their other children.

We've made great progress in the U.S. when it comes to those with disabilities.  However, when the disorder is not genetic but the result of a learning history, our sense of moral responsibility, let alone socio-economic pragmatism (well-functioning families are more productive in every way - for generations!) withers.  I see two important roadblocks to overcoming this: first, it is a common belief that lower-SES people have only themselves to blame, and thus can only help themselves; and second, we lack a coherent, comprehensive understanding of what is truly causing poverty.

The science of behaviorism is deterministic and believes all thought is behavior, and that all behavior is a product of operant mechanisms.  As such, it's answer to the former roadblock is that SES is merely a function of social history and structural formations.  Just as you would not blame a town for being flooded by a river and would instead try and help them recover, so too would you the individual.  We do this with disabilities, why not learned behavior? 

That question leads to the second, greater roadblock: the philosophical, political reaction so many have to the radical behaviorist hypothesis.  The history of behaviorism's place in psychology is illustrative: it's marginalization in the fifties and sixties after Chomsky, it's quiet growth into ABA in the seventies and its refinement in the eighties, it's establishment as the pre-eminent treatment the nineties and oughts for autism and behavioral disorders.  It took decades of tireless work and empirical results to barely make a dent in public and academic acceptance.  However, it remains poorly understood, even as its principles remain as true and central to the human condition today as they were when Skinner published Verbal Behavior in 1957.  

I would argue that the reason for this is simple: a deep human bias towards the notion that we have free will, that we are not determined, that "we" are somehow special, possessive of some mysterious, supernatural "consciousness" from which we make all of our choices.  When confronted with evidence to the contrary, many experience a deep revulsion at the mere thought, a sort of existential terror.  What, many will reply, is the point of anything at all then!  

The roots of this (reinforced) notion can be found in various forms of cultural imbibement: religion, philosophy, politics, art.  To one swayed by this mythological cacophony, to accept the radical behaviorist premise is something akin to death.  And as we have seen time and time again, when empiricism and parsimony comes up against the forces of belief in legion, it often only emboldens its enemy. 

And behaviorism is not a simple concept.  I spend very little time with families explaining the deeper processes at work (the discriminative stimuli, the matching law, schedules of reinforcement).  I give them what is necessary and show them how to use the tools of behavior change.  For some, it is rather simple.  For others, it goes against everything they would consider "common sense".  But you can't argue with results.

In many areas of the political arena, change has come kicking and screaming, after results were plain as day.  Laws were passed that people were uncomfortable with at first, but then one day would question how they could ever have been otherwise.  

Unfortunately, things like racial civil rights and rights for people with disabilities don't necessarily clash with larger mythological forces anything like that of the notion of "free will".  But how about the right to a learning history of behavioral cusps, that maximizes one's ability to access to reinforcement?  Or the right to having a deficit in learning history be remedied?  In colloquial language we call these things public education, or jobs programs.  But the underlying premise if flimsy: only a basic education, only for kids, because kids don't really have free will yet (and even then, we'll basically ignore the vastly different levels of learning histories and social capital different kids have).  Jobs programs if you're lucky, because maybe it wasn't really your fault you don't have the right skills.  Maybe.

These two pitiful solutions are vague compromises made by a larger population that mostly believes that people are responsible for their own decisions.  To the extent they are provided, it is out of an intuitive sense that there isn't something quite right about massive poverty,and therefore charity is a moral duty.  

Yet the problem persists.  And so mythologies are heaped upon mythologies.  The remaining poor - even after public schools, welfare, jobs programs (and now free healthcare!) are seen by one side of the political spectrum as simply making bad choices.  Why?  Who knows!  By the other side, they are largely seen as helpless victims of racist cops and lazy schoolteachers.  Both take as a baseline notion the idea of free will and personal responsibility.  But one side sees it as all the individual's fault, with a perfectly functioning system, the other as no fault of the individual, but rather an imperfect system which does not allow even a perfectly functioning individual to succeed.  

But to the behaviorist, all can be explained by looking at individual histories.  Indeed, the system is imperfect and broken, and has been for centuries, and as a result, learning histories have been repeatedly left to become mangled and neglected over generations.  The environment and the individual cannot be separated.  Every aspect of one's life, every stimulus that one experiences in the course of the day, every schedule of reinforcement or punishment upon which one is placed, actively shapes one's behavior.  

From this perspective, blame is irrelevant, meaningless.  All that matters is intervention.  With this in mind, social policy can actually begin to apply the necessary mechanisms.  I see on a daily basis the effectiveness of ABA in the lives of children with behavioral disorders.  The treatment is a result of decades of science being accepted and applied by a social infrastructure that recognizes not only its efficacy but feels an obligation put it into action.

Humanity is behavior.  Behavior shapes humanity.  I believe one day we will live in a world in which each citizen has a right to a meaningful learning history.  And if that learning history is disrupted by accident, just like any illness, they will have a right to treatment by a qualified, trained professional.   No one will be left to "make their own choices", because the concept will no longer make sense.  Certain parameters of acceptable behavior will be allowed, and considered "freedom", as they are now.  And others won't.  But criminals won't get "justice" anymore than successful business-people will: both will be seen, correctly, as products of their learning histories.  

And women like the ones in this article won't need to exist.  Their sense of "efficacy" will not be seen as residing in them, but in all of us.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Segregation and Responsibility

In the New York Times today a very interesting article and commentary.  I found myself largely in agreement with the thrust of the commentary: that the article places the function of its subjects' struggles in racial discrimination, when it is much more a matter of personal "choices".

Again, we see the conflict of narratives: poor minorities are helpless victims of discrimination vs. poor minorities are not making the choices that would bring them out of poverty.

Our political discourse is mired in the intransigent byproducts of this binary: one side is callous and, the other side is unwilling to deal with the truth.

To my mind, both are true.  But the key goes back to the problematic word "choice".  What does it mean?  Most people have only the vaguest notion that they are in control of their lives; an odd "sense" that they are autonomous creatures that "do what they want to do".

However, decades of experimental science tells us otherwise.  Our sense of "choice" is merely a form of labeling events and activities within ourselves and in the outer environment.  Things happen, and we label them; we "understand" them as things that have happened.  We can also label things that will happen in the future.  But in both cases, we are never doing more than describing - first to ourselves, then to others, behaviors that are beyond our control.  That is, they are subject to our history of having been reinforced for engaging in similar behaviors.  We are either following a rule of what the consequences are likely to be based on logical relationships, or on the actual contingencies involved (i.e. I've tried new foods before and they were gross so I'm not going to try them now, or that knife is sharp and I know I'll cut myself on it).

The greatest evidence of this is what is often called the "subconscious" - the behaviors we engage in without being aware of them - without labeling them.  So being "conscious" is merely being able to label one's behavior.  Most of our daily behaviors are in fact unconscious.

So why be conscious at all?  Because the behavior of labeling behaviors is itself subject to a history of reinforcement.  One can "become more aware" by receiving greater levels of reinforcement for specific labeling behaviors.  This isn't easy.  It has been said that we are awash in a "sea of reinforcement"; at each moment our mind is subject to an incalculable amount of past histories of interaction between our environment and our genetic make-up that controls our every thought and behavior.  This is the function of action.  This is the function of "choice".

So when we talk about poor minorities making problematic "choices", what are we really talking about?  History.  That history is filled with everything you might imagine.  In the article and comments, it is pointed out that a 25 year old woman is unmarried and has 3 children, and is not cleaning the mold off of her baseboard.  Why?  Sure she has "chosen" these behaviors.  Yet did "she" really "choose" them.  In the same sense, does a middle class 25 year old woman "choose" to postpone children, marriage and go to college?  But did she "choose" them?

In both cases, the behaviors were a function of the sea of reinforcement contingencies in both women's lives.  Neither woman is "free".  No one is "free".  No one is "responsible".  "Blame" does not exist.  No more so than clouds are to "blame" for rain, instead of climate.  No more so than a falling tree for a crushed house, instead of a windstorm.  There is no freedom, only causes and effects.

So, the real question is: how do we as a society design our systems so that each of us gets what we want? If there is no freedom, how is this even possible?  Just as evolution occurs in nature by natural selection, our culture evolves by selection.  We will do what is most reinforcing.  MLK talked about "the moral arc of the universe" bending towards justice.  I'm not sure if that is true or not.  But humans will select ideas, and some ideas will provide access to reinforcement, and so on.  Just as the shark millions of years ago evolved into a phenotype so perfectly adapted to its environment no offspring could evolve into anything much better, maybe human culture will finally select ("bend") towards a set of behaviors that in totum result in no more perfect system of thought being more capable of delivering what we want: safety, comfort, love, opportunity to explore our world and be fascinated.

I don't know how to deliver more opportunities for reinforcement to poor minorities.  I have ideas.  But many are merely hunches.  I do know however, that any ideas need to take into account the fundamental laws of human behavior if they are to be successful.  We do some of this already without even knowing it.  But mostly we don't, especially when we use the language of "choice", "blame", "responsibility" and "freedom".  These are backwards, antiquated notions inherited from ignorance, and in the end are responsible for vast levels of human suffering.  The sooner we dispense with them the better.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Diet Soda: The Devil's Work

I drink a lot of diet soda.  Well, probably around 2-3 cans a day.  So my ears perk up whenever I hear anyone propose that it is unhealthy.  For some reason, there is something about diet soda that really bothers people.  Given the high levels of skepticism in the general public, despite the fact that not only have millions of people have been drinking it for decades and no good evidence that it causes real harm, I'm suspicious there might be something deeper going on.  Diet soda can actually be harmful to your teeth, because it contains citric acid, which corrodes enamel.  But no more so than anything else containing citric acid, and can be controlled by drinking with food, so that salivary glands are stimulated, restoring the mouth's natural pH.

But no, the real skepticism isn't about tooth enamel.  It is mainly about cancer.  The biggest fear is the artificial sweeteners used.  Some have a vague notion that the carbonation is dangerous, something about CO2 is seemingly problematic.  However, considering it is a naturally occurring byproduct of human cellular respiration and therefor critical to our survival, I'm not sure they really understand what it is. 

The cancer concerns have a kernel of truth to them.  A derivative of coal, it didn't take long after its discovery for people to worry over its safety.  A reasonable enough suspicion, however coal itself is indeed a "natural", quite literally "organic" substance.  In 1906, when Roosevelt was promoting saccharin as a healthy alternative to sugar as part of his fitness promotion, vice president Sherman begged him to avoid it, calling it "a coal tar product totally devoid of food value and extremely injurious to health."  Despite further studies over the following decades showing it to be harmless, suspicions held.  In the 1970's, rats were found to have developed bladder cancer after being exposed to saccharin, leading to attempts by the USDA to ban it.  However the findings were controversial, and eventually in 2000, it was discovered that rodent biology was actually quite different from humans in that their bladders had very different metabolic reactions to certain substances.

Comparing biological reactions across species is always tricky (as is cancer epidemiology in general).  I happened to find a fascinating demonstration of this on the website of the Carcinogenic Potency Project, until recently headed by a highly respected cancer researcher.  The basic point is that almost anything can be poisonous, or even carcinogenic at the right doses.  No where is this more true than with rodent population.  Essentially, if one were to go by cancer rates in rodent exposure, we would need to ban everything from coffee to lettuce to hamburger meat.  By the way, highest on the list of rodent-cancer causing "natural" chemicals?  Symphytine, naturally found in comfrey root.

There are probably many reasons why people cling to suspicions about artificial sweeteners.  The idea of anything "artificial" seems worrisome to many (even though plenty of "natural" chemicals are extremely deadly, and synthetic chemicals are just as safe as naturally occurring ones.  Many people have a basic mistrust of science in general, worried that they are being manipulated by industry.  This is always a real concern, but one easily overcome by simply looking at where the study came from.  If mainstream, respected institutions staffed by authoritative, published and peer-reviewed experts are then distrusted, well, we're off into conspiracy land and the epistemological loop is closed anyway.

My own favorite theory is that many people don't like diet sodas simply for the unconscious, puritanical intuition that is suspicious of enjoyment for enjoyment's sake, and especially if one has not earned it.  Unlike regular sweets, which are high in calories which must be paid for either through exercise or self-denial, diet sodas are essentially "free" happiness.  And any deserving soul can't possibly have that without making a deal with the devil - paid for in cancerous tumors no doubt...

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Beyond the Message

Ta-Nehisi Coates is posed an interesting question by one of his readers.  As a black man who struggled in his youth, yet who is now a successful, senior editor at the Atlantic, what kind of address would he give to a class of graduating seniors at a poor, disadvantaged high school.  His reply emphasizes that - and he has given a number of talks to schools - he doesn't think stern admonitions or cliches about working hard would find much traction.  Instead, he writes that what is most important is speaking of a sense of personal interest in education, of ownership.
I am doubtful that I could have been shamed into making better choices. Some people probably can be. There's was plenty of shaming around me as a child. But I did not take education seriously until I saw something in it for me, aside from what everyone else thought.
Some people are great speakers, and great speeches can be given, and I won't begrudge anyone for putting out a positive message.  But I can only be reminded that these kids need more than messaging. 

I've recently given up teaching because after a handful of years of teaching at schools with screwed up priorities, where my classes have been filled overwhelmingly with students with severely dysfunctional attitudes towards authority and their own education, I came way too close to having more than one nervous breakdown. I had to leave for my own sanity.

I feel like I have my own idea of what those teachers might say, but I don't know. Maybe they were terrible teachers who were disrespectful to their students and had no compassion. Maybe, like me, they were too forgiving and let the students walk all over them - despite my best efforts, I am just not that strict, authoritarian. Such a style would seem to be the only way of working in such a dysfunctional institutional structure.

I worked for two years at a continuation school, where kids got sent after essentially failing the first two years of high school, and demonstrating they couldn't be productive members of a general population environment (fighting, talking back, doing drugs, etc.). On a hierarchy of needs, these kids needed something much more basic than content: they needed emotional healing, a quiet place to escape negative social norms (parents and peers were often sociopathic), and someone to listen and talk with them.

Unfortunately, the NCLB/reform movement has been all about destroying the old ways teachers might have had to dealt with such students (who, let's be clear, are the real drivers of the achievement gap and are by and large a product of poverty and social dysfunction at a structural level - neighborhoods, jobs, etc.). My principal wanted to see over 90% "engagement" during direct instruction lessons to students who hadn't earned credit in years, and who spoke openly in class about been abused at home, daily hardcore drug abuse (often in the hands of their parents), violence, and wave after wave of teen pregnancy. And yet, the principal literally had us analyzing test score data in staff meetings!

So as a teacher maybe of similar students myself, I wonder if my comments wouldn't come in the form of an apology for a royally fucked up system which doesn't really care for them, in terms of actually trying to offer help to them that they would need. Words? They need more than words.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Treating Pain

A doctor in the New York Times today writes about the difficulty in treating pain.  He's caught between a pain rights movement that pushes for more humane treatment and the prescription of needed medications, and the dangers of users and addicts.  He frames his article with a patient of his who has a history of  substance abuse, and seems to be malingering.  I have no doubt that this is a serious concern for doctors, who don't want to feel like they are being taken advantage of.  Yet how much of a problem is this, and how many genuine sufferers of chronic pain are living in misery because of  overly cautious doctors?

I recently had a horrible experience in finding a new doctor.  After 20 years of chronic neck pain, and having tried nearly everything - from physical therapy to chiropractic to rolphing to wacky supplements, and ultimately a suicide attempt - A pain specialist covered under my previous insurance finally got things manageable.  Unfortunately,  aside from effexor, and over the counter ibuprophen and acetaminophen, the one pill that was a real breakthrough was the sleeping pill temazepam, which ended years of agonizing, restless, painful sleep. 

Two doctors, after a brief consult, determined that I shouldn't be taking it, and that I simply had "insomnia".  The first didn't want me taking anything at all, and the second told me that "people in the 3rd world didn't have the luxury of taking pills to get to sleep".  

Great, now looking for my 3rd doctor made me feel like I was doctor shopping.  Well, I was, but I simply wanted to get back to the treatment that I had been on for a few years and had been very effective.

My current doctor has no problem with temazepam for my neck pain, thankfully.  But  in looking for a doctor who would prescribe what I wanted I can't help but feel like I was manipulating the system, subverting skilled, trained authorities in favor of my own lay judgement.  Of course, it is my body and I have 20 years of experience with what has and has not worked. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Amazing Employee (tm) or, If This Is How You Ran Your Business...

I have a business dilemma.  I have this great service that I am promising to be able to provide to customers.  It is incredible, and everyone wants it.  The problem is, I just don't have the resources to do the job at the price they are willing to pay.  Key to my business model has been the concept of the Amazing Employee(tm) - someone who will be able to do twice the work, for the same pay, under conditions that are twice as bad.

See, I know what you're thinking.  He's crazy.  But I have a secret.  What I offer is something so amazing that prospective employees will be lining up around the block just for the chance to "be a part of something profound".  Don't worry.  I have recruiters all over the country and we get a lot of juice.  People get really excited about our service and want to be a part of the team.

Now, the hard part has been in finding people who can really do the job, and won't just quit right away.  So far, in tests, we haven't been able to find very many people who can do either, much less both.   No matter how much training we give to current employees, nothing really seems to be helping.  We're looking into attracting only the best and brightest from top colleges, but even they seem to really struggle, or leave after a couple of years.

We've also got the problem of the union.  They keep demanding that the working conditions are terrible, and that the job isn't fair.  They're constantly threatening to strike, hampering our ability to turn the screws any tighter.  They point to other areas of the company where the job is half as hard and employees get the same pay.  They think that it isn't fair to demand twice the performance for a job that is hardly possible.

I'm not sure what to do at this point.  I'm really beginning to question my business model.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Taking Education Seriously

A recent op-ed piece in the NYTimes by Jal Mehta, professor of education at Harvard, asks if we can ever "fix the teaching profession".  The answer, the author argues, is yes, but not by following either pole of the current debate: neither the Michelle Rhee model of laying blame squarely on the teachers, nor the Diane Ravitch model of blaming corporate profiteers and social ills.  Instead, what we need is a mixture of accountability and recognition that social ills drive inequity in schools.  By properly training teachers, we can overcome things like poverty and academic unpreparedness by getting teachers into the classroom who know how to overcome such difficulties.  A rigorous exam, for example, would make sure only the best and brightest enter the profession:
A rigorous board exam for teachers could significantly elevate the quality of candidates, raise and make more consistent teacher skill level, improve student outcomes, and strengthen the public’s regard for teachers and teaching. 

Unfortunately, this is all bullshit.  And it comes from one of the greatest myths in education, the idea that student performance in general has very much to do with the teacher.  

While it is true that a teacher can make a big difference, this is only marginally true, and when compared with similar demographics of students.  To understand this, you must first look at how education actually happens in the classroom.  In any school there is a great variation in student preparedness, i.e. their emotional, cognitive and behavioral readiness for learning. At the elementary level, you see this as a spectrum within the classroom.  But as children enter middle and high school, you see it both within the classroom as well as across subjects, with some same-age students taking low-level classes, and others taking high level classes.  At both ends of the spectrum, you have special education and gifted programs taking the very top and bottom students.

What's interesting is that at almost every level, the "preparedness" of the student is entirely dependent on the home from which they come to school each day.  Aside from genetic anomalies (special ed or gifted), students are basically products of their environment and will perform as such.  Families with high levels of societal capital with produce children with high levels of preparedness, and families with low levels of societal capital will produce children with low levels of preparedness.  You see this across schools and districts, the measurements of societal capital correlating directly with student performance.  

At the macro level, generalities are easy to predict, as the data sets are large.  For example, income correlates in general with societal capital, and so neighborhoods on hills have high test scores, while neighborhoods near industrial zones have low test scores.  Yet when the data sets are smaller, generalities are harder to make, and evidence becomes less clear, even if larger trends still hold when small data sets are included in wider arrays.  For example, at one school, there might only be 10-20 kids whose parents both have graduate degrees.  It is therefore difficult to make any generalizations about the highly educated school population at that school.  But if we combine what we know about students with highly educated parents, we can make rather strong predictions about the preparedness of such children.

This is not a new phenomenon; it is a basic reality of human development.  What is odd, however, is the idea in education that a student's preparedness can somehow be markedly changed by a single, highly trained teacher.  This isn't, after all, how we actually approach the problem in schools.  We don't give kids Calculus when they haven't mastered Algebra I.  Education 101 tells us about the "zone of proximal development", a basic psychological principal that one's knowledge must necessarily grow by degrees, not giant leaps.  New knowledge must be applied to old knowledge for it to be meaningful.  

And yet this is exactly what is being asked of teachers of disadvantaged students, who by definition are lacking in academic preparedness.  Remember, of course, that there will be highly prepared students in poor schools, but less of them.  Their dilemma, of course, is that they must suffer through an education in which so many of their peers are so disadvantaged.  In a way, it would be like forcing Michael Jordan to play on a team where few know how to dribble the ball.  Charter schools have been able to gain great moral favor by promising to provide just these sorts of students an "out", their poor parents no longer being constrained by the relationship between their income and real estate values.  (Of course, going to a "good" public school is as easy as being able to afford an apartment in a nicer part of town).

This larger theme of social inequality, disadvantage and the reality of property markets is a tough sell.  What is it, after all, that one is selling?  How do you solve a problem as complicated as all that?  Next thing you now we'll be talking about more redistribution and that means more taxes and moral arguments.  So much easier it is to simply emphasize the technical aspects of the problem and go after the low-hanging fruit, especially when examples of lazy teachers, intransigent unions, and arbitrary seeming tenure-ships can score big political points. 

The problem is that accountability doesn't seem to be working.  Sure, we're only ten years into NCLB, and we still haven't been able to break the unions, end tenure, develop top-tier education bar exams, tie employment to student performance, or fully roll out charter alternatives to public schools.  Maybe by 2022 we'll have done so. 

But it isn't going to work, for the simple reason that performance has little to do with the teacher.  In the end, if you still have classes of 25-30 unprepared kids and one teacher, you are not going to be able to meet their needs.   At the end of the day, the reason the students are unprepared is that their home lives have been, are, or will be shitty.  The reasons are too many to list, but they are created from inequality.  Single-parenthood, incarceration, menial-wage work, mental and physical health crises - all at various levels of severity and impact, feeding on each other to lower societal capital - will forever be conspiring to devour the child's preparedness.  A system designed around a teacher overcoming these problems, alone in the classroom is destined to fail.  And if our current course is any indication, it is will bring everything else around down with it.

You might be able to find a few rare teachers who can do some amazing things, but they will be the exception, and in the process of finding them - if current reforms are any indication - you will have severely damaged what could have been a much more humane, nurturing, creative profession. Ending tenure will create a climate of fear and remove a promise of job security that compensates so greatly in a profession that requires so much sacrifice.  Designing accountability around tests principally designed to improve scores of the least prepared, ironically, will reduce education across the board to a numbers game.  It will promote a pedagogy that might increase scores in the short term, but will create a fog of lifelessness in the classroom that in the long term will drive the disadvantaged student to feel even more trapped and cornered by a less and less flexible institution in which he can only succeed by repressing his natural impulses.  Those that can buckle under to authority will do so and those who cannot or will not will be sent down a punitive road leading to further discipline and eventual expulsion or other exit.

So what would one propose as an alternative?  We must start by radically changing our course.  We must throw out the idea of the teacher as the solution and instead look at how we can go after the problem in a structural way.  Special education is a great place to start.  Landmark law in special education was rooted in the notion, often seen as enshrined in the 14th amendment, that all - including those with special needs - have the right to an equal education.  Not only were they to be offered the same education as everyone else, but their special needs were explicitly required to be taken into account and remedied for.  As recently as the Americans with Disabilities Act, students with special needs have been promised in the courts an education that takes into account their special needs.  Within reason, such students are given aids, support materials, special teachers or special classes designed to supplement their education so as to ensure that they can be accommodated for.

This is what disadvantaged students need; their disadvantage must be accounted for.  Currently, we do this in only the smallest of ways through income-predicated funding that provides for extra meals at school, and a small portion of special serves.  In general, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you get some extra food.   But extra food doesn't begin to make up for the level of under-preparedness that disadvantage creates.  For some, it is surely important, but would you give a kid with severe disabilities a sandwich and expect him to be able to function fine in a regular classroom.  What if half of the other kids in the class were in wheelchairs as well?  What if some had autism, some had troubles with speech, some had problems toileting and some had a mental impairment?  What kind of teacher would we expect to be able to provide a proper education to them?  

Disadvantage in is this regard invisible.  It is hard to see on the outside, but is no less real.  When a child grows up without a father and learns from his friends that school is for chumps, he doesn't walk into a classroom with a sign declaring so around his neck.  Instead, he might simply choose not to listen to the teacher, do as little as possible to get by, or - God forbid - only pretend to fill in the bubbles on his standardized state test.  What happens when half the kids in his class are just like him?  67% of black kids grow up in single-parent families.  What if they have other issues at home, such as physical, emotional or substance abuse, or if their parents simply don't know how to prepare them for school because they were never shown how themselves?  Again, the list of issues associated with poverty and disadvantage is almost endless.  But suffice it to say that in poor neighborhoods, classrooms are filled with them.  Issues then become ever more concentrated as children age, until high school were the entire is usually spent with under-prepared, under-achieving peers who are frequently delinquent because they've simply lost all respect for the institution of education.

But what if we found a way to identify, track, and provide targeted support to these kids and their families?  In special education, there is a specific model called Child Finder, which actively seeks out children whose special needs are affecting their school performance.  A process is created in which a panel is formed to evaluate the needs of the child on a regular, ongoing basis.  It is not simply left up to the teacher to do his or her best in the classroom, making phone calls home when possible.  Specialists are called in, paperwork is initiated, goals are established and necessary accommodations are made.  The child is not given everything under the sun.  But what is offered is substantive and supposed to be reasonable.

To a degree, this has begun to go on, but in highly inappropriate and misguided ways.  Owing to special education's history clinical history as targeting children with obvious physical disabilities, when a child presents negative behaviors that are severe enough, they are being classified as needing special education.  But the model is limited.  Merely being disadvantaged certainly doesn't qualify, and a special classification comes with a highly negative stigma.  

What would need to happen is the creation of a new system of identification and classification that is as least restrictive as possible, but that still allows for appropriate interventions.  Because the issues in disadvantage are much less clear than low-order physiological issues in special education, the program must be flexible and allow for students to move fluidly in and out.  For instance, a student might be going through a rough period, and require only very temporary intervention.  Others might face more severe problems and require multiple years of intervention.  The intervention model would also need to be broad enough to incorporate a wide variety of emotional, cognitive and behavioral deficits. 

What would the program look like?  At the most basic level it would be a dramatic reduction in class size.  This would primarily serve to facilitate a more differentiated, nurturing environment.  Academically prepared students can handle much larger class sizes.  Their developmental capacity allows them to be more independent, more able to follow directions, and be more self-directed in their learning.  But under-prepared students need more help.  In education, this would be called "scaffolding"; the process of supporting students as needed, with the ultimate goal of removing scaffolding as they reach new levels of proximal development.  The differentiation would be effected both in delivery of curriculum, but also in provision of specialized services.  The child's family would be brought in to his or her education in w much more forthright manner.  Not only would there be time to do so, but there would be trained staff on hand to do the proper outreach and support required to meet the needs of the family.  

As in special education, this support would range anywhere from the child being placed in a mainstream classroom, with ongoing special support by outside specialists, to small day classes.  It would be entirely goal based, with mainstream teachers setting the pace for their academic subject standards, and the individual child's placement and level of services be rendered accordingly.  For example, if a student is regularly scoring poorly in an area, or is becoming a discipline problem, special support services would be alerted, and the child would be targeted for interventions.

All of this would cost money, much more than we are spending now.  But the difference is that we would be holding ourselves morally accountable for the reality of our society.  Special education also costs money, but we don't call it "throwing money at a problem".  Instead, we consider it our responsibility to fellow citizens.  Tragically, while there will always be students born with special needs, there will also be children born to families that for whatever reason haven't been able to prepare them adequately for school.  As a society, we have agreed to maintain an economic system that keeps large sectors of society impoverished.  We have tacitly agreed upon a system of property that forces people to live in communities segregated by income and societal capital. 

If we are truly honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that human development doesn't happen in a vacuum, and that families matter in the preparation of a child throughout his school years.  Just as we decided decades ago not to ignore students with disabilities, today we must decide to stop pretending that teachers are the solution to social inequity, and to stop ignoring the problem of academic preparedness.  

Students who come to school prepared don't need "good" teachers.  Neither should students who come to school unprepared because of their disadvantage.  What they need are special services that take their development seriously.