Saturday, February 11, 2012

For the Public Good

Recently, a union leader, New Jersey Education Association Executive Director Vincent Giordan, made what at first blush appeared an insensitive remark. When asked how he felt about the fact that poor parents can't afford to pay for their children to go to private schools, he replied: "Life's not fair."

While seemingly harsh he was in fact stating the reality of living in a capitalist system.  The original discussion had been around the issue of vouchers, and whether parents ought to be able to use them to leave their local public school.  School "choice" is basically the contemporary version of that argument.  Yet this sort of "privatization" framing of public goods misses the point.  There's nothing quite like public education, but imagine if approached public parks, or community centers similarly, offering paid tickets for country clubs and movie theaters.  These are public goods designed around the fundamental principle of guaranteeing access to the least among us, who would normally be shut out by market forces. 

The assumption behind school "choice" has always kind of irked me.  As I see it, the problem in education - certainly the achievement gap - is a simple matter of demographics.  SES essentially equates with high performance.  Public schools are an essentially socialist enterprise, in that they provide a free basic service to everyone and bill the taxpayer, much like roads, parks and traffic lights. 

Yet what we don't do, as we are not a communist country, is provide "free SES" everyone.  Citizens still must rely on their own income to pay their bills and pay rent.  Property values, largely a function of neighborhood SES, enforce and perpetuate SES segregation.  Thus, neighborhood schools will not be heterogeneous by SES, and achievement will be pulled up at schools with high social capital, and pushed downwards at schools with low social capital.

What we are currently doing is assuming that schools as traditionally designed can remedy the effects of low SES.  Attempts at "choice" and selective chartering play a sort of shell game in which parents who may be economically poor, yet are actually  high in social and human capital (have better parenting skills, more coherent and functional families, etc.), are given what amounts to a special pass out of the neighborhood school placement that their income would otherwise have enforced.

I'm not necessarily opposed to this in principle.  I'd like to see every student's (and parent's) needs be met.  I'd also like to see every family be able to afford a house out of a poor neighborhood.  But, "life's not fair", right?  The system as presently designed isn't capable of remedying the effects of low SES. 

So let's make it more fair.  School "choice" isn't doing this.  It is, at the margins, for those few higher SES poor parents who can take advantage of it.  But for the rest, well, "life's not fair".  I want a system that is actually fair. 

There seems an irony of school "choice", in an implicit behavioral assumption: that poor parents "choose" low performance.  What else explains the low achievement at poor schools?  Bad teaching?  How could it be that all the bad teachers end up at poor schools, lowering achievement, while all the good teachers end up at more affluent schools, raising achievement?

So, how could we truly make life fair for poor parents - the whole spectrum - whom for whatever reason aren't able to prepare their children for academic success.  We start with differentiated classroom models.  Three things are proven to be crucial for low-SES students: smaller class sizes, experienced teachers, and school wide interventions.  On top of this, things like after-school programs, truancy intervention, home-visits and parent outreach would be even better. This means a dramatic restructuring of how we fund schools, with much more funding going to pay for these increased resources.  Currently, when you look at the breakdown of measurable levels of social capital between a high-SES and low-SES school, the disparity is enormous, with highly predictable effects on development of human capital among the student body.

It isn't at complicated as it seems.  But a dramatic shift away from the current model, towards one of differentiation across districts, emphasizing SES-based intervention, is a radical shift towards meaningful reform.

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