Tuesday, May 18, 2010

We Don't Treat Education as an Equal Right

A common view among education reformers is that the problem is simply too great to really solve.  While dressed up in soaring language and promises - "No Child Left Behind", "Race to the Top" - actual policy  instead amounts to half-measures and marginal reform.  Marking yesterday's 56 anniversary of the Brown Vs. Board of Education, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated:
We reaffirm our collective commitment to providing a high quality education to all children regardless of race or background so they can succeed in college and careers and prosper in life. Education is the civil rights issue of our time.
I would like to think that Secretary Duncan really believes these words.  He may, deep down, favor the type of paradigm shift in thinking and large-scale intervention that his soaring rhetoric would actually require.  Unfortunately, this sort of endeavor is not on the table in contemporary politics, and so he may simply be engaging in the politics of the possible.  But just because something is hard doesn't mean it isn't the right thing to do.  There are moral as well as economic arguments that it is worth it.

Opponents of early childhood intervention point out that there exists a sort of "drop off" effect, in which early gains are eventually lost as the child ages.  The two main problems with this are A) some intervention programs are much better than others, and B) you would expect to find a "drop off" when you have a reduction in services.

For instance, simply sending in crates of books to preschools might sound like a good idea, but without curriculum and implementation training, its a huge waste.  The quality of the program is everything, and there is a lot of evidence for programs that do work very well.  Low income kids tend to come in to Kindergarten well behind their middle class peers and from an academic standpoint, anything you can do to get them up to grade level before day 1 is incredibly helpful.

That leads us to the next problem: longevity.  Poor kids under-perform for a reason.  They have simply not had the exposure to facilitate adequate emotional and academic development.  Head start makes up for this somewhat, but once they enter Kindergarten, they are treated no different than middle class peers.  They have the same teacher/students ratio, same access to resources, and generally same facilities.  Actually, resources tend to be quite diminished, owing to the demographic and financial resources of different SES groups.  You see a drop-off because of what doesn't go on before and after school hours and in the summer months, as well as the simple fact that there is a high concentration of low-achievers bringing the classroom down.

So the obvious solution to this is start early - hopefully at birth, and fund programs with a proven track record of success.  It isn't really very hard.  You then continue to assess through grade school.  Resources are targeted according to needs, and not only standardized testing, but demographic SES is accounted for.  So, for instance, if you have high rates of drug use, crime, single or young parenthood, low family education levels then you allocate more resources for things like parent education, home-visits, after-school support and counseling services.

We have no problem doing this if a child has a physical or mental disability - special ed services are a right.  Yet we pretend that SES disadvantage isn't just as important a factor.  Sure, it's more difficult to assess than say, mental retardation, speech or vision problems, but is just as powerful.  Some kids who's father is in prison might be dealing with it very well, but others won't.  On average, it is just another risk factor.  We would never think of sending a special needs child into a classroom and expecting the teacher to provide them with an adequate education.  We should treat SES no differently.

If we were honest with ourselves as a society, we would recognize how powerful a factor SES is in child development and allocate resources accordingly.  It isn't because the effective programs aren't there, or they aren't scalable.  It's because we lack the political will, and the sociological and philosophical sophistication to deal with complicated social processes.  Ghettos are out of sight, out of mind.  So when budgets get cut on the backs of poor kids, no one really notices until the children develop into criminals, who we then blame for making "poor choices".  Well, it was really us who made the choice to ignore them for the past 18 years of their lives.

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