Saturday, May 5, 2012

Taking Back Education

I'm so tired of playing defense, and responding to all the misguided education reform proposals coming from one side.  They aren't showing any results, teachers are getting more and more frustrated and fed up.  The dialogue needs to change.  That's just what Deborah Meier is asking for.  She correctly implies that, under the guise of "freedom", much of education reform has been about social Darwinist notion of leaving the less-affluent in the dust, and only providing help to "those who help themselves".  This has been done through attempts to substitute a free-market system for truly public schooling.

"....They had their eyes on something different. In the name of equality—and our survival as a nation—they decided we had to get rid of our sentimental attachment to public space, public life, and so much more that we "foolishly" associated with our nation's democratic history. Suddenly I, and others working in "the trenches," were an obstacle to reform! We were blocking the 2lst century, aiding America's enemies, etc.
....[We] should be devoting more energy to considering what our "utopian" solutions might be, as well as the next steps for getting there. What's the direction, the criteria, the underlying precepts that should drive our vision of the future of schooling for educating the next generation?  What's needed to maintain a healthy planet, nation, community, and family that treats each and every one with equal respect—democratically. As I've said before, believers in the marketplace see it as the natural solution to all problems; democracy is not a natural solution. We're not born with—or without—the habits of democratic citizens. It's even at times counter-intuitive." 

Hurray - yes, yes, yes.  We spend so much time on "this side" playing defense and pushing back on flawed assumptions, misguided policy, etc.  But what would we do instead? 

I'm sorry to admit that I don't have much of an answer.  I have a vague idea based on my experience, but most policy expertise and think tank work seems to have rallied around the basic reform platform.

But I have some basic ideas, and they flow from my understanding of how child development and poverty work.

First, "good" schools means "good" families.   As long as w have economic segregation, we're going to have concentrated human/societal capital.  This means concentrations not only of better parenting (and all that entails - habits of mind, parent education, time to parent, family cohesion, income, etc.), but of peer group quality, as well as government and market services  - libraries, parks, businesses, community centers, organizations, etc.   (a fascinating comparison of neighborhood capital can be found on the website  Compare for instance, Santa Monica, CA with Huntington Park, CA.  It gives you a great picture of what we're up against.  You'll also notice that school APIs directly correlate with this kind of SES data.  See: school-performance )

So, how to deliver an excellent education to different populations with highly varied levels of human/societal capital; i.e. how to close the achievement gap?

I'm framing this in polarities, but there is obviously a spectrum of SES communities.  Indeed, what we see in the charter phenomenon (as with vouchers - its prior incarnation), is the political pressure of higher-capital families to demand quality education for their children.  What this really means is the provision of education separate from one's geographic location and community demographic.  One way to achieve this is to move to more affluent neighborhoods, another is to design exclusive charter schools that cater to a higher-capital demographic subset caught in a less-affluent neighborhood.  The political hot potato here is that while everyone wants the best for their child, not everyone is able to give it.  I've taught plenty of students whose parents wanted the best for their children, but were so low-capital that they simply didn't have the capacity to provide the kind of parenting that is necessary for student success.

The reform movement has not wanted to confront this tragic reality, mainly by pretending that regardless of family capital, education can be provided that overcomes it.  I have no doubt that this *can* be true.  But I disagree with the proposed models, and since this post is about alternatives, I won't go into individual objections.  But we can just say that the models are largely focused on the individual teacher or site, and less about larger reforms to the way public education approaches the dynamics of class (capital) and achievement.

OK, so now that premises are in place, here is my big idea, and it might not be a coincidence that it comes directly from long-established education pedagogy about learning.  In the classroom, we differentiate instruction to account for individual learning.  Can we do the same thing for neighborhoods?  Can we design schools according to the capital of a demographic, so as to provide targeted, differentiated services that meet their unique needs?

It is clear that the needs are indeed quite different.  At my daughter's high-capital charter school (most kids have two involved, educated, well-paid parents).  My wife and I (both with graduate degrees) made sure that both our girls were reading before they entered kindergarten.  We provide a very rich cognitive environment at home, speaking to and engaging our children in ways that foster high-level development - lots of reading, critical thinking, creative and constructive play, etc.

Contrast this with (again, I'm doing polarities, recognizing that there is a spectrum) a low-achieving school.  Many parents will have little education, work long hours for little pay, and not be in the habit of emphasizing high levels of cognitive engagement with their children.  There will be more "drama" at home, whether from the parent or relative or peer groups, that engenders high levels of stress-response behavior.  I'm speaking in great generalities here, but the research is overwhelming on the kinds of social breakdowns that exist as SES declines.  Place this in the context of a low-societal capital neighborhood (such as Huntington Park, CA), and the results are plain to see.  Children frequently begin school with little or no letter or number recognition, limited vocabulary and poor impulse control.  Important as these indicators are, they belie a much more serious deficit in human capital resulting from lack of environmental nourishment (or, in many cases, chemical toxicity).

Yet, of course, the discrepancy doesn't end when they enter kindergarten.  Children are not nearly done developing.  And for 13 more years, they will be living in the same environment at home.  As they age, the immediate family becomes less central to their development, and peer group interaction becomes more salient.  Further, effects of human and societal capital tend to compound.  Capital, essentially, is about leverage.  The less you have, the less you are able to create, and vice versa.  So it makes sense that you see a steady decrease in achievement by grade in less-affluent schools.  Not only are students falling behind academically, but the deficiency compounds, as more content is introduced, which becomes more difficult to keep up with. 

All of this begins to sound like closing the achievement gap is impossible.  Yet it is a founding principle of this country to provide freedom to every citizen.  And yet one cannot be free unless one has been given an equal access to develop one's potential.  And therefore, it is the mission of public education to make sure, despite a child's background, to allow them to fulfill their potential. 

Yet given that economic segregation exists, which then creates social decay by limiting human and societal capital, and that low-capital families can't raise children as well as high-capital families can, what can schools actually do? 

In the face of such an enormous developmental challenge, I propose something equally radical: absolute differentiation of schools according to SES.  Currently, we do this in only the most limited ways, through federal funding.  We make sure students have access to food, and we provide a handful of services to compliment regular instruction.  But this is vastly inadequate to the task of truly remediating what are profound inequities in capital.  The results are expectedly marginal.

I haven't done the research, but the proposition is clear: what would it look like to design a school that could reasonably provide its students a rectification of the capital deficiencies they have inherited from their family?  To ask an illustratively specific question, what would a kindergarten classroom look like that was able to provide 3x the vocabulary to a child?  How would it stimulate in him the cognitive connections and higher-order thinking skill-building he has never experienced?  How would it relieve the stress coursing through his circulatory system and interfering with learning?  How would it provide the kind of enrichment experiences such as trips to museums, beaches, etc?  How would it make up for him not being read to nightly, or not getting enough hugs because he is being cared for by an older sibling while mom is at work?  How would it provide mentorship and build inter-personal social skills based on trust, empathy, and positive communication as opposed to lord-of-the-flies style absence of wise authority?

How indeed.  There are many factors endemic to SES and class in society that conspire to inhibit good parenting.  In my work with teen parents, I wonder how they will ever be able to offer their children the requisite development.  But I am also struck by the degree to which they are lacking in support.  Low in human and societal capital to start with (as generally were *their* parents), what might we be able to do to help them be better parents?  What social programs are there that direct them to more positive outcomes?   More research needs to be done here.  What works? 

Yet maybe what works is not an individual program, but a multi-level "cognitive safety net" of sorts that provides an array of interlocking services that facilitates an ongoing intervention.  The model could be both carrot and stick, in terms of rewarding participation.  Daycare, WIC, foodstamps or transportation could be provided for attending and passing parenting classes.  Student performance (academic and behavioral) in school could be tied in to such a system, in which parents were required to attend intervention meetings.

In the classroom, differentiation is designed around assessment.  Could we establish "triggers" of sorts in schools in which specific interventions would involve a variety of services in a larger, district ecosystem? 

Forget NCLB.  No more testing.  We have administrators routinely meet with teachers and analyze performance data on students.  Academic and behavioral issues are identified, interventions are *available* that may be realistic solely in-class, or may require a more serious activation of social workers, counselors, aides, etc.

Because of the reality of economic segregation, class sizes would be determined by a variety of measures of a neighborhood.  But so too would be the availability of aides, social workers, etc.  This might mean doubling or even tripling the funding of poor schools.  But why not, when there are 2-3x the issues?

Politically, this would require a sea change.  Yet why not begin to argue for it?

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