Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Radical Reformation

Diane Ravitch evokes the grinchitude of Ebeneezer Scrooge as she compares the current ed reform movement to Dickens' callous crank.  Reminding us that poverty is the real issue, she points to a new paper by Helen Ladd, professor of economics at Duke, "one of the nation's leading experts on issues of accountability".  Mentioning that Ladd also co-authored an excellent opinion piece summarizing the paper in the NY Times, she quotes the abstract:
Current U.S. policy initiatives to improve the U.S. education system, including No Child Left Behind, test-based evaluation of teachers and the promotion of competition, are misguided because they either deny or set to the side a basic body of evidence documenting that students from disadvantaged households on average perform less well in school than those from more advantaged families. Because these policy initiatives do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, they have contributed little—and are not likely to contribute much in the future—to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm. Addressing the educational challenges faced by children from disadvantaged families will require a broader and bolder approach to education policy than the recent efforts to reform schools.
While this is an excellent argument for why reform efforts are misguided and naive, it fails to offer a compelling alternative.  I applaud the critique of current ed reform, but I would like to see more proposals for how this translates into policies that truly transform our broken system and address the many issues that ed reform does not.
In the paper, Ladd proposes nothing new: "early-childhood and preschool programs; school-based health clinics and social services; after-school programs and summer programs".  I have no problem with any of these ideas - all are sorely needed and crucial.  But I don't see any of them, even taken as a whole, as being game changing.

The problem may be primarily in the way these programs get rolled out; each is mostly isolated from the rest, with no cohesive, comprehensive intervention in the specific family.  This leads to a lot of families falling through the cracks, issues not being followed up on, and chronic problems not being treated.  Providing targeted interventions in a family isn't easy, but it only becomes harder the more services stay segregated and don't coordinate. 

An idea I've been kicking around for a few years is a sort of radical restructuring of public schools that organizes them less by geography (which is largely a proxy for income), than by rigorous human and social capital assessment. 

Beginning at birth, parents would be required to take generalized assessments - residence, income, education, substance abuse history, mental illness, health, etc.  These would trigger deeper assessments as needed.  From this data, we begin to identify and target areas in which family interventions are required.  This could begin with environmental interventions (paint, carpet, pollution, etc.) that seek to remove and reduce contaminants.  There would also be home nurse visits, and targeted parenting classes, incentivized by special coupons either for extra services or rewards - maybe sponsored by community business groups.

Yet all of this would be highly centralized and continually monitored and assessed, triggering completion or addition of new services and classes.  As the child develops, he would also be monitored for developmental progress and assigned requisite services.  A central database would track the family in realtime, updating things like job status of immediate family and relatives, criminal offenses, enrollment in substance abuse programs, etc. 

While all of this may seem like a sort of terribly invasive totalitarianism, its goal would always be to offer scaffolding for human and social capital development.  Assessments would trigger gradual disengagement by the state as needed.  Currently, the "nanny" state isn't doing a very good job meeting these families' needs.  Yet social expenditures on education, interventions, policing and incarceration, are still necessary - yet not organized in a way that is ultimately very productive and transformational.

As the child develops and approaches the traditional age of Kindergarten enrollment, there would be a seamless integration between the K-12 system and pre-K.  Based on continued family evaluation, the child would be placed in an elementary school not by location, but by need.  As it stands, geography is already a pretty good proxy for human and social capital.  But there would be more differentiation between schools, and yet not based arbitrarily on income/geography, but on real family evaluation data and criteria.  What this would allow for is flexibility and much more highly focused intervention delivery.  As such, depending on the level of interventions offered, these "schools" would function almost as family treatment centers, where a type of human and social capital triage would take place.  Psychological services would be available 24 hours a day, parenting classes, daycare, fitness and enrichment, drug treatment, etc. would all be offered along-side traditional academic elementary classes.

Yet these classes wouldn't be exactly traditional.  They would be staffed by experienced, highly paid, credentialed teachers trained in poverty intervention.  Curriculum would be designed accordingly, accounting for cognitive and language deficits previously assessed for in the family database.  Class sizes would be dramatically reduced, again according to needs assessment, to 10-15 students.  Multiple aids would be available, each trained in various special needs of students. 

A major benefit of such centralized "schools" (social service centers, really), would be the availability of community resources.  I could think of fewer better interventions in a struggling community than for adults in rehab or probation to come and participate in reading groups with elementary or middle school children.  So much of the dysfunction and nihilism we see in these communities is a direct result of the breakdown in community bonds and cross-generational engagement.  Apart from reading groups, these mentors could function as volunteers in many areas of academic enrichment - PE, field trips, art, etc.

I anticipate the following objections to this radical conception of the merging of social services and education: cost, logistics, and intrusiveness.  I'd like to see a projection of what such a system would cost.  My guess is what it saves in consolidation of resources and increased productivity would alone pay for the added services.  But long-term, the savings that would result from a dramatic targeting and investment in human and social capital would not only generate financial capital through a more effective and educated workforce, but it would also enormously reduce the expense of rehabilitation and incarceration.

As for logistics, I'm sure a variety of models could be experimented with.  Federal funding could be made available that incentivizes competition and creative solutions, fostering inter and intra--state experimentation.  In my work in social services, I can only see agencies welcoming the increased ability to do their work more effectively.

Intrusiveness might be the main sticking point for a lot of people.  This sounds like big-government on steroids.  But so are treatment facilities, police, prisons, and of course, schools.  The reality is that poor communities need our help.  Their lack of human and social capital defines their need for help and intervention.  To the degree that a family demonstrates no need for services, none will be necessary.  I think if you asked poor families themselves, they would jump at the chance for better health care, better education, better daycare, and generally more support to be successful.

No comments:

Post a Comment