Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Elephant In the Room

To be sure, there is no substitute for a good teacher. There is nothing more valuable than great classroom instruction. But let’s stop putting the whole burden on teachers. We also need better parents. Better parents can make every teacher more effective.
I was astonished when I read this quote in today's NY Times.  It's from Thomas Friedman, someone you might have little reason to believe would make a claim so far outside the current neo-liberal/conservative alliance on education reform.  The full column, titled How About Better Parents?, points out that the real culprit in student achievement is not poor teaching, but poor parenting.  This is not a call for breaking the teachers unions, nor a call for higher standards, nor a more market-based emphasis on charter schools and teacher accountability.  It is a head-on call for a change in the national debate about what really drives the achievement gap.

Looking through the comments to his piece, one gets the impression that his claim is obvious.  Of course it is the parents - we all know this!  Yet why does the education reform debate ignore this issue.  One the one hand, it assumes that all poor parents need is more choice in where to send their children, as if a better school is all that is needed.  On the other hand, it sees schools as the primary factor in student achievement, and thus the solution to closing the achievement gap, and inevitably solving poverty in America.

I think there are two historical reasons for this schizoid thinking, one each from the left and  right, and they account for why parenting has been so long ignored.  The right has never had a problem with blaming parents.  It is the first to blame all social ills on culture and ethnicity (even, at times, genes).  Its primary interest, the security of the white middle class against the barbaric poor, not to mention its fear of the secularism of the state, drove it to embrace vouchers as a way to allow middle class families to remove their children from public schools (and the children in them).  Yet it found that dropping the issue of vouchers for a much less controversial, yet in many ways similar, call for charters was good politics. 

Charters could be promoted without ever having to engage in the sort of victim-blame that was such red meat for the base, yet turned off the majority of American voters.  In fact, charters were a sort of win-win: not only were they a way of breaking unions (and big-government democratic ambitions), but they could be held out as quasi free-market solutions to poverty and the achievement gap.

The left, for its part, has never been comfortable with blaming the poor.  It's been too busy trying to argue the structural issues with a capitalist economy, as well as fighting for multiculturalism and the right wing notion that other cultures and ethnicities - even immigrants, brown people! - are as important and have as valuable a place at the American table as any.  So the idea that the low success rates for poor students can be traced to their poor home environment and lack of quality parenting, and not racism, discrimination, or exploitation, the idea that the poor are to blame for their own lack of academic success, would seem to undermine everything they've always fought for.

Yet this doesn't have to be the case.  What both sides are missing is the scope of the problem.  While the left wants to ignore the contemporary, active dysfunction among the poor, the right wants to ignore the historical social and economic structures that have conspired to create, and actively perpetuates a population which has been leeched of its human and social capital, and thus its ability to leverage in the world.  The children, the students of this population are simply the current inheritors of what is essentially our collective failure to establish an equitable distribution of human and social capital. 

My desire is that Friedman's words will not fall on entirely deaf ears.  He surely isn't alone.  The words he speaks will make intuitive sense to any who reads them.  Yet what must be transcended is our fear of embracing a difficult and messy truth about America, both past and present.  The problem - nothing less than poverty and social disadvantage itself - has always been humanity's greatest challenge.  Solving it will require a serious reckoning not only with what kind of institutions and governmental structures we seek, but, and more fundamentally, with how we perceive human agency itself.  This is the elephant in the room.

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