Thursday, September 16, 2010

We Know, But What Do We Do About It?

 Jessica Shiller points out that NY mayor Bloomberg's claims on closing the achievement gap were largely overblown.  She then reminds us that we are still ignoring the real problem.
What is interesting about these arguments is that achievement will increase if we change things outside of the schools, not inside. It is not a matter of raising standards, turning around failing schools, or increasing the amount of charters that will close the achievement gap, but we may have a great impact on the achievement gap by desegregating our schools, and providing families with economic stability.

I agree with where she's heading.  But I don't think she's quite there.

I'm not sure if either of those are very good solutions.  The first, desegregation, doesn't seem like a very real driver of disadvantage.  I think it was important decades ago, when racial problems were much worse, and white people may have needed to be broken out of their shells.  But it is problematic for numerous reasons.  It is very expensive and time consuming to send kids all over town to various schools.  Poor families are suddenly across town from their child's school, and for a population that already struggles with school engagement, this is only more burdensome.  And as we have seen, integration doesn't resolve deeper socio-economic issues.  Poor minority students being sent to affluent white neighborhood schools is a recipe for racial and class conflict.  I'm not entirely opposed to the idea.  Certainly having more diversity in schools is a good thing.  But at this point it may be more realistic to focus our resources on improving poor, minority schools where they are.

The second idea, regarding economic stability, is somewhat broad.  There are many things we can do right now, inexpensively, to stabilize poor families.  But as for more long-term solutions, these are entire communities in need of intervention at many levels.  The beauty of targeting poor schools with resources is that they can serve as hubs for a broader array of services to facilitate a community's social and economic transformation.  From day care, to parenting classes, drug counseling, to healthy cooking, home-nurse visits and after-school tutoring and mentorship programs, resources can more effectively be directed to the specific needs of the community.

I think once we begin to see the generational poverty cycle break, integration and economic stability will happen much more easily.  The larger question is what sort of downward pressure our economic system presents to neighborhood housing markets. Low-skill, low-wage jobs will only ever pay enough for employees to live in the cheapest neighborhoods, thereby concentrating poverty, and of which the neighborhood school in a poor neighborhood will always be a microcosm.  Until those types of jobs no longer exist, so too will that poverty.  Busing the children away to other neighborhoods seems an appealing remedy.  But I wonder how effective it really is at getting kids (and their families) what they really need in the form of targeted interventions and provision of critical services.

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