Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Chasing Windmills

Honoré Daumier, "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza"
Keith Humphreys reminds us that many of the "easy" problems in politics have died off, and thus what are left are the hard ones.  But he then makes the very reasonable point that getting elected often means pretending that there are easy answers, when reality is in fact much more complicated.

I think all of this is true.  But ironically, we also make our problems much more intractable by going after simple-minded solutions instead of seriously grappling with larger underlying problems.

A lot of what seem like intractable problems can be boiled down to education. Or rather, the issue of equality of opportunity for children to grow up with the developmental resources they need to mature into socially healthy citizens. Things like crime, neglect, abuse and hardcore substance abuse arise much more disproportionately in these populations.

So, here is where the huge gap is between policy and effective solutions. There certainly plenty of unknowns, but there are also plenty of knows that aren’t being addressed.
Right now, we aren’t dealing with the dynamic of locational poverty – the tendency of poverty to concentrate geographically, which leads to large communities of low capital (income/human/social).

We aren’t dealing with home or neighborhood environments. We have a smattering of non-profits and outreach, but little is coordinated. Most of the interventions we do provide are through a disorganized public education system that is designed more around the concept of teacher as parent/counselor/instructor/mentor. But in over-crowded classes, over-burdened teachers can’t begin to meet the needs of high-risk students. There is little or no systematic integration of family needs intervention. For instance, a student could be struggling in one class, and a teacher can try to help remediate, possibly send the child for counseling (if it hasn’t been cut), but the larger issue of parent situational dynamics is absent, even if there are likely multiple siblings in the same family experiencing problems across multiple district sites.

I was recently non-reelected (i.e. let go) from a continuation school because I wasn’t providing the kind of direct (whole-class) instruction that the administrator felt was necessary for academic achievement. My pedagogical approach was to emphasize personal relationship building and individualized instruction, which didn’t fit into his assessment model, and thus resulted in my receiving low evaluation scores. Unlike the other teachers at the school, as a new hire I lacked tenure, and thus even though my instructional method (favoring relationship-building and emotional rehabilitation over rigid adherence to unrealistic standards) was fortunately the norm at the school – the teachers here are practically saints considering the clientele – I wasn’t immune from administrative autocracy. (Nothing could make this point better than staff meetings devoted to improving test scores, when our population has a drop-out rate of over 50%, severe substance abuse and mental health issues, and a majority of whom do have little motivation to do work in class – often because they are too high – much less on a state test for which they have zero explicit incentive to do well on).

This is symptomatic of a larger “no excuses” trend in education that assumes that a child’s emotional, behavioral and cognitive development are largely irrelevant to instruction, and that a “well-designed” lesson is essentially a cure-all for what can be an extensive legacy of developmental deficiencies. Thus, something like ongoing trauma at home must be ignored in favor of an authoritarian model of instruction in which the teacher is expected to be capable of adequately remediating entirely on his or her own, alone in a classroom of 25-35 students.

Implicit in this pedagogical assumption is the explicit disregard for student needs that years of research and behavioral theory have proven true. For instance, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model, before a student can achieve high-level cognition, fundamental stresses need to be resolved. Many at-risk students enter class after having suffered any number of environmental stressors that put them at a very low operational level. For instance, if your dad was drunk and beating your mother (or you) the night prior, it is going to be difficult to concentrate on the process of DNA base pairing. Further, the concept of the Proximal Zone of Development shows that learning is context-dependent, and a student with a 3rd grade reading level shouldn’t be asked to study 11th grade material.

These are the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts underlying so much of the teacher anger surrounding current education reform that emphasizes union-busting charters, pay-performance, and other “accountability” measures designed around the assumption that bad teaching is to blame – an assumption itself based on the notion that teacher efficacy should be able to remediate even the starkest developmental and sociological deficiencies. Of course teacher quality matters and you can always find great teachers doing great things. But this would be true in multiple domains, and yet we are generally not so foolish in basing our performance expectations on outliers in other fields.

So, why do we do this in education? I think the reason is twofold. First, the stakes are so high – we know now more than ever the importance of human capital, both in terms of self-efficacy as well as democratic egalitarianism, and public education is naturally the primary policy response. Second, as I have outlined above, there is a deep failure to grasp the magnitude of the challenges, and thus it is apparently quite easy for people not familiar with the front lines of low-SES education to adopt a simplistic, naive perspective and buy into misguided solutions.

These two dynamics – social imperative and naiveté – conspire to create a policy environment in which easy answers are prescribed for serious problems, leading inevitably to a sense of frustration and powerlessness. Compounding this problem is our tendency to want to find scapegoats, easily identifiable characters around which we can build convenient narratives; if only these simple obstacles were removed, our story would have a happy ending. But to extend the fairy tale analogy, single-minded, quixotic adventures distract us and waste time better spent targeting specific problems and integrating them into more reality-based approaches.

Generally, we have not done this in education. Our failure to properly grapple with the problem has led to vastly wasteful expenditures in time and money, as millions of teachers across the country have been asked to do the impossible in lieu of serious state and federal policy designed to tackle the roots of low-SES developmental patterns. The system we exist in now is largely socially Darwinian, in that those with sufficient levels of human and social capital are able to survive and develop adequately, while those without are stranded in a wasteland of broken, uneven or simply nonexistent policy. As misguided policy prescriptions based on flawed assumptions continue to fail, we continue to risk a subsequently misguided sense that generational poverty and the SES achievement gap are intractable problems.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for linking Eli, and for this well-written and nuanced analysis.