Monday, April 12, 2010

Equitable Citizenship is a Right

Education reform is a topic of much debate.  Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, places emphasis on improving school quality through reforms to unions, performance pay, standards and innovative charters.  What is missing however, is any discussion of parenting.  It is an established fact that failing schools are largely made of of poor students, who come from poor homes with poor parents.  They come in to school from an environment that does not adequately prepare them for success.  The traditional response to this is to simply try and get teachers to do their jobs better.  So far this hasn't worked, and any teacher will tell you that it isn't so simple.  Even the best teachers will struggle when faced with an impossible task.  Poor schools across the country are trying their best and continuing to fail.

But wasn't the real problem the student's home environment?  Maybe that is something we can do more to fix. The first question is, "what kind of home environment"?  What is it about home environment that produces success?  This where differences in socioeconomic status become clear.  School quality does have some effect, but this is largely dependent on the population served to begin with.  (I'll skip further comment here because it's complex and if looking at policy, teacher performance is going to get you minimal results compared with a student-targeted model). 

So the next question is what is it about SES that influences student behavior.  There is a lot of data on this.  It begins in the womb.  Environmental toxins, esp. lead paint, are surprisingly big factors in poor neighborhoods, and they have serious physiological effects.  From there, you go to mother's hormones - stress levels.  Language and emotional development begins very early.  These are enormously dependent on environment.  Basic cognition, vocabulary and social skills can be literally years behind by the time kids enter kindergarten. 

So what can we do about it?  "Money" is a loaded term: spent poorly, it has no effect, obviously; spent wisely it can have very good results.  Again, this is in the data.  What you really want is to target at-risk students, looking at academic deficits, whether behavioral or skill-based.  Models can predict pretty well where these will come from demographically.  Some students will certainly be very difficult to properly provide support for (I'm thinking of those where drug use or criminality is a major factor at home).  But in most cases a comprehensive investment in outreach and daily - if not hourly - support will be plenty.

This won't look like the standard public school model, where a child shows up the first day of kindergarten, sits all day in a class of 30, then goes home with a backpack loaded up with worksheets.  That model simply doesn't work.  Certainly not as a guarantee of the right to an equitable citizenship.  If we are serious about leaving no children behind, we need to take ownership of the idea that every single child, no matter where they come from, will turn 18 having been adequately prepared for life success. 

We have pretended that just by giving children basic access to a teacher in a schoolhouse, we have done our job.  Some stop-gap measures have been cobbled together, such as busing, reduced-price lunches, or special education resources.  But these don't begin to address the many disadvantages many children face.  Some will decide this is too big a task, either because it is impossible or not worth it.  The truth is that it is possible, and a strong case can be made that it will ultimately be worth it not just in a moral sense but because the economic and social gains will end up outweighing the initial investment.

The Harlem Children's Zone in New York claims to have gotten every child into college.  Even if not entirely true, this is a staggering achievement.  They also get 2/3s of their funding from private sources.  That's a budget 2-3 times that of ordinary public schools.  But they are able to use this money to provide services over and above the traditional one child, one teacher model.  They provide parenting workshops, health services, extended hours, and round the clock support.  Their Harlem Gems pre-K program runs 8am-6pm and has a 1:4 child/teacher ratio. 

If we currently spend around $7,000 per child for 12 years, that's roughly $84,000.  California spends more than half that in one year per inmate.  If we took as seriously the problem of giving every citizen an equitable start in life, as we do the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, we could be replicating the success of the HCZ in cities all across the country.  Imagine what this would do for us in terms of productivity?  Real estate values! 

As a matter of civil rights, as arguably enshrined in the constitution, this will likely require federal intervention.   Specific, evidence-based programs can be funded by mandate at the federal level.  But we need the public will to commit the resources in a serious way.  All the talk of teachers and charters and unions is largely irrelevant.  What is needed is a paradigm shift in which a child's development is viewed in a holistic, environmental context.  Most schools will not need very much extra help at all.  Most communities will not need health services or parenting classes or all day kindergarten.  At risk students can be individually targeted and services provided on an as-needed basis.

We can do this.

No comments:

Post a Comment