Friday, December 31, 2010

The Invisible Radicals

Michael O'Hare appends a thoughtfully-commented post on education reform with a call for, well, what amounts to better teaching and more effective pedagogical suggestions.  Yet he makes what I think is a common mistake in the current reform debate: he raises the specter of the achievement-gap, yet then prescribes common educational practices which are routinely found in higher SES schools, yet less common in poor schools, as a substantial solution.  By emphasizing classroom instruction and ignoring the more powerful and destructive ways in which SES disadvantages children, he unknowingly promotes the very attitudes that have lead to a continuation of the achievement gap.

He begins his piece by making the reasonable observation that calls for instructional reform need not imply a devaluation of other efforts at reform.

"the instinctive, desperate, desire to believe that a problem has one solution–that advocacy of a reform or practice improvement must be hostile to other possible approaches–is a really big problem. If home environment, parents, and peers matter a lot for learning (of course they do!), trying to hire and train better teachers can’t make a difference, right? Wrong.  We can do lots of useful mutually complementary things to improve student learning at all levels, and being paralyzed with doubt because we might be pushing the third most efficacious of these rather than the first is just silly. "

This is a good point on its own.  But policy is political, and some ideas are going to be pushed more than others.  I'd say the emphasis on good vs. bad teaching right now is about 90% of the debate.  That is, it is assumed that we can close the achievement gap through figuring out how to get better teaching.  Just look at the Obama administration's policy agenda: charters, accountability, standards, pay for performance - all focused on the teacher.  Implicit in this overwhelming focus is an assumption is that most of the problem problem is in teaching itself.  It would be as if we we were riding a bus headed for a cliff and everyone was screaming that what we really needed to do is roll down the windows and reduce air flow with our hands.

In my view, the problem is much greater, and involves the larger and much more intractable problem of poverty and disadvantaged parents unable to properly support their children at home.  If you look at schools where kids are getting good support at home, "bad teaching" simply isn't an issue. But we don't talk about this anymore.  The left and right have converged around the idea that the standard model is fine, and all we need to do is tweak the teaching. 

Here's another metaphor: two mountain climbing guides each have a group of hikers he needs to get to the top of the mountain.  One group is properly trained, has the right gear, is well-nourished and excited to work hard.  The other group is poorly trained, has broken gear, malnourished, depressed and uninterested in climbing at all.  Should we give each guide the same resources, and expect them to take their hikers the same distance each day?  No, that would be silly.  If we were smart we would would still expect both to do their job (obviously), but we should find ways of supporting them and their hikers so that they had a chance in hell of actually making it to the top of the mountain. 

We mention pre-K in passing, and it is on the table.  But it is kind of the beginning and the end of the acknowledgment that SES plays a role in the achievement gap (pre-K is essentially intervention for the poor).  But the extra support ends when they enter kindergarten.  Suddenly it is is entirely up to the classroom teacher, with no extra resources, to take each severely disadvantaged kid and make adequate progress. 

What if we treated SES the way we treat special education?  What if we did an initial assessment, then targeted students for support services as a part of a legal mandate to take their disadvantage seriously?  This could mean anything from after-school tutoring to a one-on-one aid, to a social worker who acts as a liaison between the school and home, to home-health visits and parenting classes?  All of this of course backed up with extra funding.  We do it with reduced-price/free lunches.  We acknowledge an SES nutrition gap. 

But proper nutrition is just the tip of the iceberg.  What other risk-factors exist that affect academic performance?  There are many.  It's all in the literature.  But the problem is in assessment.  How do you determine the level of cognitive stimulus a child receives at home?  Or stress levels?  There are broad predictors such as parent education.  But how do you get at specific, targeted needs?  There are a variety of ways you can go - maybe routine home visits, maybe starting from birth, maybe a centralized system of sharing between case-workers, teaching staff, counselors and health workers.  The goal would be to treat the whole child and develop protocols for intervention that provide support for classroom instruction.

Due to cost, and - probably subsequent - philosophical intransigence, there just haven't been that many large studies of this sort of comprehensive approach to what I'd call "Student Capital Intervention".  There have been many small programs which provide rudimentary evidence for this type of thing being successful.  I think it is well supported in theory - we know that great gaps exist in family/neighborhood impact on development.  But we need more studies that tie specific treatment programs to academic success.  But these kinds of longitudinal studies involving multifaceted care are very difficult.

But ultimately, if we remember just what it is we are facing (large-scale poverty and social dysfunction), and what kinds of results we are expecting (equity in achievement by graduation), we will inevitably be faced with the fact that any serious reform will require a massive and radical reformation of what public education looks like.  The good news is that we are wasting countless hours and dollars on efforts that will produce marginal results.  So, if we were somehow able to shift all that effort into the kind of meaningful reform I've discussed, much of the cost will be offset. 

More money could also be found in a reworking of the tradition model of resource allocation.  So for instance, my daughter's school is largely a high human and social capital demographic.  Educated parents, intact families, reasonably affluent - all providing invaluable resources to the student population.  Not only is parent volunteerism high, but fund-raising routinely brings in roughly 30X that of a low-SES school.  So if we moved toward a more means-tested model, we could save considerably. (Of course, there might be considerable political push-back here.)

I'm not naive in thinking that this has a chance of happening any time soon.  But I do think it is inevitable as long as we are reasonably interested in closing the achievement gap.  Presently, it isn't even really on the radar.  But I think there is a great deal of "invisible support" for something like it, both from teachers as well as from researchers across the nation. 

Interestingly, it's a vaguely acknowledged piece of Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, which spends around 3x per pupil.  Yet even there, he's managed to thread an interesting political needle between the teacher-reform crusaders and the human/social capital intervention models that target what research has found to be the primary driver of the achievement gap.  As it stands, indications are that the HCZ's success has had more to do with student selection than its smattering of support programs, which are far from the comprehensive regime I've argued for (most recipients of HCZ support programs aren't actually educated in its schools and whose academic outcomes are not being tracked in any kind of substantial way). 

Yet there is research that has supported the efficacy of similar types of programs, although much more work needs to be done.  Given that we are probably at least a decade a way from the realization that our current trajectory is destined for general failure, we'll certainly have time to lay more of the groundwork.  Interestingly, a few court cases have moved in the direction of finding constitutional support for the idea that students have a right to a proper education - leaving of course the proper policy path up to debate.  But a legal grounding will come in handy when we realize that more investment will be needed if we are to engage the larger and more difficult problem of SES and education.

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