Thursday, November 11, 2010


I'm in the process of putting together a diavlog at blogginheads. They have an "Apollo" program for amateur bloggers (I guess in the end it's all about book sales and page counts!), and a member of their community has agreed to record a discussion with me. You can find him blogging here.

Anyway, we've been comparing notes, and he sent me a link to a NY Times piece on a recent study by the Council of the Great City Schools that found the racial achievement-gap was even worse than we had thought.

The article was well-written, and laid out the study's findings in enough detail to pack a punch.  However I was struck by a major incongruency in the logic of one of the article's sources.  The study's subtitle is "The Social and Educational Factors Contributing to the Outcomes of Black Males in Urban Schools".
“There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten,” said Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard. “They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have.”
Those include “conversations about early childhood parenting practices,” Dr. Ferguson said. “The activities that parents conduct with their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. How much we talk to them, the ways we talk to them, the ways we enforce discipline, the ways we encourage them to think and develop a sense of autonomy.”

The article goes on to state that the study proposed more funding for schools, as well as efforts to support more black mentoring.  Yet it specifically shied away from endorsing the education proposals championed by New Reformers, such as testing, accountability, charters, and merit pay.

The article quotes the council's executive director, Michael Casserly:
The report did not go down this road because “there’s not a lot of research to indicate that many of those strategies produce better results,” Mr. Casserly said.
Yet oddly, it returns to Ferguson:
The key to narrowing the achievement gap, said Dr. Ferguson, is “really good teaching.
Really?  You're telling me that a man obviously knowledgeable enough in current research in the socio-economic factors behind the achievement-gap is going to put it all on teachers?  That just doesn't make sense.  Here he is acknowledging the great burden these kids face due to a lack of human and social capital, yet claims the "key" to narrowing the gap is teacher quality.

Obviously it isn't going to hurt.  But how exactly is that going to work?  And why isn't there more evidence of it working?  Maybe because really good teaching is already happening in poor schools across the country, yet they just don't have the resources to do it all by themselves.

One of the findings of the study was that even poor whites are performing as well as blacks who are not living in poverty.  Does this then mean that poor whites are receiving better teachers?  Why would that be?  Maybe a better question to ask is how are poor white communities different than poor black communities.

I realize on this front that I am not very knowledgeable about white poverty.  But as far as I know, there simply are not white communities comparable to large urban black communities.  While the study offers this contrast, there are just too many variables for which to adjust.  As true with poverty as it is with education, it is impossible to isolate an individual from their environment.  A poor student in a poor neighborhood, in a classroom filled with poor students, is going to have a much different experience than were they to be in a non-poor neighborhood, in a classroom surrounded by non-poor students.

The biggest problem I have with the whole New Reform movement is that it seeks to treat the student in total isolation.  In fact, literal isolation is largely the key to success of the KIPP program, which extends the school hours and week, thereby limiting the effects of the poor environment on the poor student.  This sort of massive intervention is also one of the reasons the school is not scaleable.  That and the fact that it is able to select for student its population.  (The students (and parents)  I work with wouldn't last a day at KIPP.)

What these communities need is holistic intervention.  It will be costly.  But those costs will ultimately pay for themselves.  The real hurdle is in convincing American citizens that they need to pay for it, especially as education costs seem to have risen with little they see to have been shown for it.  But there are many programs out there that are scalable, and have been proven effective.  And realistically it isn't going to happen overnight.  It will take decades of slow, complicated work.  But the first thing we need to agree on is that it is something worth doing, and something we are willing to pay for.  Because simply blaming teachers and asking more of them is something that will not only not work, but it will make things worse because it is not addressing the problem in a serous way..

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