Monday, October 18, 2010

Can't We All Just Agree With Me?

I first heard of Amy Wax's book, Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century, during this diavlog between John Mc Whorter and Glenn Loury over a year ago, before which McWhorter had reviewed it for the New Republic. 

My thoughts on that were less than amused.  Now Wax is back and she's taking on Glenn Loury directly over at bloggingheads.

"The fundamental problem with urban education is political-economic organization, it's the unions, it's the work rules, it's the efficacy of the teachers in the classroom, and so on... it may also to some degree be the resources."
"Is it that the teachers are not trying to teach them basic stuff or is it that the students for whatever reason are just so ill-equipped when they come in... significantly behind... then to turn around and say it's the school's fault..."
Loury responds with the HCZ.
"They are significantly over-performing kids at parallel schools..."

Argghhhh... Here I am, agreeing with Wax! Well, it's no surprise. Conservatives have always blamed the poor.

But Loury essentially is trotting out the typically neo-reform BS about the failing urban school. Well, yes - but not because it isn't doing the best it can. It's going into battle severely under-prepared! Comparing poor schools to suburban schools is like comparing military operations in Iraq and Italy. Yet no one questions whether the troops are competent. They just send them billions of dollars and make sure the job gets done. (Go America!)

The HCZ is funded at 3x the level of regular schools, plus they have a selection advantage. KIPP does this with some extra funding, but mainly through selection advantage and teacher sacrifices. They're like the special forces - highly skilled but not scaleable for a massive campaign.

Conservatives are willing to blame parents, but can't see that the parents lack agency themselves. Liberals won't blame parents, but will agree to more investment in schools and other resources to attempt to repair the decay in social and human capital of the poor. Everyone blames teachers and the teacher-lover unions.

Wax is exactly right that this is massive. I'm not sure who has an answer for changing the behavior of the dysfunctional poor. But looking long-term (although it'll be here before you know it), we can do a lot of very effective things right now to both improve the lives of the poor, as well as put their children on a path to success. This starts pre-natal, goes into intensive intervention for high-risk families, cuts class sizes way down, extends the school day, and provides serious support services from health to counseling K-12.

In many ways it's literally the nanny state. But when you have parents not providing crucial services to their children, someone needs to step in and lend a guiding hand. And newsflash! - one teacher in a class of 30 students (most of whom have similar issues) ain't going to cut it.

Wax can yammer on all she wants about her just-so causality stories. I think it's complicated at the very least. In the meantime we need to act.

Bonus material: KCRW's To the Point with Warren Olney had an excellent little discussion on the current state of  education reform yesterday.  Definitely worth a listen...

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