Monday, September 6, 2010

Misplaced Protest

Sara Mead wonders whether principles in LA are being overwhelmed right now by parents clamoring to get their kids into teacher's classes who looked good in the value-added story.  She makes a great point that this sort of individualized advocacy actually works against broader reform:
To the extent that parents are successful in lobbying for better teachers for their kids, it only locks in inequities between kids with more engaged and savvy parents and those without. And in a system where principals don't necessarily control who teaches in their schools, what can they do in response to 100 parents demanding Mrs. so-and-so and NOT Mrs. thus-and-such teach their kids? Getting beyond zero-sum would require some form of organizing and advocacy to get parents engaged in broader systemic issues--how teachers are hired, assigned, and removed--beyond their individual child. That kind of organizing is difficult, but can be done.
While I can sympathize with parent frustration, I'm more concerned that this is all a massive waste of time in general.

In my view the real problem is low levels of social and human capital among parents in poor schools. This is a deficit that is simply not realistically dealt with via "great" teachers. Focusing on good teaching as a meaningful remediation to this larger problem neglects more useful policy projects. What should be emphasized are specific structural responses geared toward correcting this socioeconomic imbalance in the first place.

Once these programs are in place, ensuring quality teaching in the classroom will still be just as important, but won't be as fraught with problems as it is now. Teaching across SES schools won't be so difficult to compare, nor will it even at the site level, as an emphasis on assessment and family intervention will make tough classrooms more manageable.

In an ultimate irony, by focusing less on teaching and more on implementing targeted, research-based programs to specific school populations, outcomes will improve dramatically and the high-pressure emphasis on teacher quality will cease to be seen as important. The evidence of this is that there is little complaint about the teaching in higher SES schools. This isn't because the teachers are magically better (if the data in the Times piece is to be believed, on of their findings was that teacher performance varied little across SES schools). It is simply that the parents at higher SES schools have higher levels of human and social capital and are thus better equipped to provide their children the proper developmental nourishment to ensure they are successful at school. The teaching still matters, but the job is no longer a herculean task, but what it should be: taking a class of students ready to learn and teaching them.

Society has finally realized that A)students in poor schools are not receiving a proper education, and B)that because of this their civil right to an equal chance at success in America is being denied. Yet what we have not realized is that this is a problem that is not solveable by teachers alone. While some schools and teachers are able to achieve great things, generational poverty will not be ended by relying on such miracles in every neighborhood, town and city in the country.

Instead we need to be completely restructuring our response, so that our policy response is commensurate with the level of human and social capital in a given community. To give a brief example, my daughter's <900 API charter school, in an upper-SES neighborhood raised $90k last year. And she's reading at a 1-2 grade level in kindergarten. This school should in no way be receiving the same resources as the high-poverty school down the road. Those kids need extended hours, smaller class-sizes, psychological counseling, parent/family classes, special field-trips, one-on-one tutoring, etc. Their teachers don't need ever more scrutiny and hoop-jumping. Real change will require that the capital deficit be made up.

I understand that in many ways this is unrealistic. The public simply doesn't want to spend any more money on education. But by falsely assuming that teaching is the real problem, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. The more we emphasize teacher quality as a remedy for the achievement gap, the more teachers will look like failures when progress will inevitably be meager. The problem thus begins to look even more intractable and policy-fatigue will set in (if it hasn't already).

But instead, if we champion the idea that these communities are struggling and need our help, and we follow through on that promise, success will breed more success. Programs like the Harlem Children's Center, which show incredible results through research-based interventions (yet spend 3x the money), will seem like worthy options.

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