Sunday, May 6, 2012

Taking Back Education: A Response

I posted much of my last entry to Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch's blog, Bridging Differences.  I received some robust pushback by one commenter, and the following is my response to her critiques.

“Blaming it on SES is a copout and a "blame the victim" mentality. The district lines are arbitrary and in many cases the strong economic variations from one side of a district line to the other is BECAUSE of the bad school district.”

OK, this is a refrain that I’ve heard many times and I think needs to be untangled.  It is a fact that low-SES correlates with much higher levels of either poor behavior or lack of parenting capacity.  For instance, a single parent working two jobs is going to struggle much more in giving her kids the adequate attention they need to develop.  It doesn’t mean she can’t.  But that on average there are going to be many more situations where kids fall through the cracks.  And that’s only one dimension.  Lower-SES means that overall levels of capital in a neighborhood are going to be lower, so the other kids in her apartment complex are more likely to have parents who are dealing with more stress, less money, and less education.  This deficit of societal capital translates directly into ongoing deficiencies in levels of human capital in students.

So, I would say that yes, I am blaming the poor.  But I am seeing them as disadvantaged and deserving of extra social support, the blame lying on a capitalist system which perpetuates poverty: low education and low pay means you can only afford to live in certain areas, which means you are dragged down by those around you who can’t, or don’t know how to be more successful.  In moral terms, I would say this isn’t actually blame because I argue that there is no *real* choice being made (I’m actually a philosophical determinist so I don’t really believe in free will, but that’s a whole other can of worms/rabbit hole!).  If you can’t do something because you don’t know how or are physically incapable, there is no choice occurring.

But in so far as I am taking the emphasis of the school and placing it on the parent, I see how you could say it is a cop out.  But my case is that schools as currently designed are incapable of handling the extra work that low-SES populations require.  You say they can do it, by not allowing the 20% to dictate the culture.  Are you getting that number from somewhere, or using it as a kind of general point that there is some difference in populations, but not so severe that an average school shouldn’t be able to overcome it?
My response could be that it is you who are copping out, right?  Poor schools have always performed poorly.  All of the current problems have always been there.  We know that teachers at poor schools are not really any better or worse than teachers at good schools.  So it isn’t the teachers.  It must be the “culture” so often spoken of.  I completely agree that culture/climate of a school is important.  But it is something highly complex, that cannot be created top-down, and has as much to do with serendipity as anything else.  It is dependent on so many things going just right, can often take years to evolve, and can devolve at any time due to staffing or policy changes.  I’m all for good school culture, but I certainly don’t want to rely on it to solve the achievement gap.  Again, SES is going to be a major factor in driving a school culture - which indeed you admitted, and which I think is further argument that low-SES schools need much higher levels of resource-requiring intervention capacity.

“But most of the people in bad schools are very much like most of the people in good schools. Kids are reasonably intelligent, kinda lazy, come to school most days, have parents who care but aren't super involved with school, etc. Which brings me to answer of your second question -- most traditional public schools allow 20% of the school population to determine the entire culture of the school -- the programming, the discipline procedures, the attitudes and expectations of the staff, etc. In wealthy schools, the top 20% establish the culture. In poor schools, the most disadvantaged 20% establish the culture. But average kids have absolutely no chance in a typical low-achieving school. And average kids have a very good chance in a high-achieving school.”

I just have to really disagree with this, and it is borne out in the research.  Not only is there a spectrum of societal capital (that stimulus/support which students receive from families, peers, society), but so too a spectrum of human capital (the cognitive, emotional, social, behavioral skills that students have developed via societal capital).  This spectrum in the classroom is easy to see, and must be accounted for through differentiated curriculum.  This is probably where the rubber meets the road in terms of the school “culture” that gets spoken of.   At a high-SES school, most of the kids will be at grade level, having received adequate support at home.  It is therefore much easier to teach them all to grade level.  At a low-SES school, the range in abilities (emotional, cognitive, behavioral, etc.) is much greater, and therefore much more difficult to assess, plan for, teach, etc.  Truancy rates – an enormously important factor in academic success, also correlate highly with SES. ( 

It simply isn’t true that low and high SES populations are similar at all.  I agree that the culture of  low-SES schools is disproportionately established by the bottom 20%.  But that is because they are so much more difficult to deal with.  As any teacher will tell you, even a small number of trouble-making students can be severely disruptive in a classroom.  Again, there is a spectrum, and disruptive students are only an additional problem on top of truancy, lack of cognitive development, language skills, etc.  Let me give you an example of how linked SES with academic readiness.  English language-learners are given mandated competency tests, right?  So, even a kid who speaks little English, but comes from a home with higher levels of capital (parents read to him at night, aren’t stressed, are better educated, etc.), will often perform better on the CELDT test than a native born, English-only speaking kid who comes from a low-capital home.  Time and again, you see poor kids who are for all intents and purposes at the level of non-native speakers.  Not only in terms of language ability, but in every other developmental domain they will consistently be less-developed.  But this is basic human development: kids don’t develop by themselves.  Learning begins at birth and is enormously dependent on environmental stimulus.  

One more example of this: at my daughter’s high-performing school, high scores are no accident.  And they have little to do with the school or the teachers.  My daughter (both parents with graduate degrees) has classmates whose parents are doctors, lawyers, business owners, head chefs, professors.  One girl has two parents who are both optometrists.  Most can afford to have one parents stay home.  Parents routinely come in and not only conduct small-group work with children, but grade papers, prepare projects, organize events, etc. on a *daily* basis.  At a recent fundraiser, they raised $90k.  I would venture to guess that most children were reading when they entered kindergarten.  Most take music lessons, are heavily involved in athletics, and generally live very enriched lives outside of school.  When I taught kindergarten, it was difficult for me to find parents who were available to help out in class, either because they didn’t speak English very well, were busy working low income jobs (many were gardeners, maids, clerks, or other service-industry workers), or because they just didn’t feel comfortable coming in and taking the initiative.  Attempts at organizing PTA activity at the school were very difficult.
“Oh, and as far as social programs, I'm not opposed to safety nets, but I'm against widespread government interventions. I don't see politicians as inherently different than businessmen, and playing politics is almost identical to commercial marketing, so I don't get the mindset that big government is somehow going to save us from the greedy businessmen. Big government people are just as self-serving as big business people.”

There’s a lot here.  I’m not sure what you mean by “greedy businessmen”.  What does that have to do with reducing class sizes, paying for aides, counselors, home-health visits, or anything else for schools?  Or daycare for single-mothers, or subsidized students loans, or better libraries, or food stamps?

“The idea that liberals care more about poor people than conservatives do is a marketing gimmick, not anything based on liberal policies actually being good for poor people. Try to find a low-income person that's against school choice. Why do you think that is?”

There seems to be a bit of incoherence here.  You seem to be saying that liberals claim they care more about poor people, but only because they favor spending programs targeted towards them, when it isn’t that conservatives don’t care, but rather that they don’t think these programs are effective.  Is that right?  I agree with this, to a degree.  But there is also a long history of conservatives being opposed to social programs in principle, that they cannot be anything but ineffective, because the solution to poverty is not a handout but an individual making better choices.  This has led to more than one conservative blaming the poor for their own poverty *and* not feeling any personal obligation to help them.  Maintaining that state services are ineffective can be a very corrupting crutch in deciding not to do anything.  The most cynical conservatives argue that indeed, liberal social programs are actively causing poverty; the assumption being that without them, everyone would be successful.  Again, were they not to be successful, how then would these conservatives explain any lack of success, except by blaming the poor themselves?

School choice is an interesting proposition.  On one level I completely agree – poor people should get to go to good schools.  But again, I argue that the reason the schools are bad is because people are poor.  Because we live in a capitalist society, and we have free property, there will always be poor neighborhoods.  This is purely a function of the economy.  I refer you to the previous links I gave upthread to the two cities in California.  This is just a reality.  Capitalism gives you as much choice as you can afford.  Of course everyone would like to have choice: better roads, libraries, parks, neighbors, businesses, healthcare, etc.  

Now, public education – like other state services – are socialist in the sense that they promise a basic level of service to everyone, regardless of income.  But the problem with education is that it relies on one’s peers.  You can create better parks or roads, but you can’t create better neighbors.  There will always be more crime in poor neighborhoods.  And there will always be more disruptive, less prepared/developed children in poor schools.  School choice is essentially like a holiday from one’s economic position. 
Yet there is a way in which it is like a shell game.  If the premise is that good schools are due to the student population, then to “choose” a better school, you must “choose” a school in which the demographic make-up is selective *away* from the element of the population that is bringing the school down.  Unfortunately, this group tends to be the least likely to make the “choice”, and further, much less be able to follow through with the requirements that allow a school to be good: low truancy, good behavior, academic ambition.  Poor families are not at all homogeneous, and many are perfectly able to provide the kind of support their children need to be successful.  Indeed, what brings them down as a school is the much higher degree of ill-prepared/developed students.  Much of the strength of charters is in their ability to select for the quality of its student population.

So, I disagree that the problem is the school, and believe it is the tendency of low-SES student populations to be under-prepared for academic success that drives the achievement gap.  I think families deserve a quality education, but would rather not see the better-prepared students sapped from a community.  I think much of the problem can be solved by radically reduced class-sizes, which allow a teacher to better meet the extra needs of low-SES populations, as well as a more robust system of family support and intervention that targets the ecosystem in which the most troubled students are developing.  

I think in providing this kind of support, poor and affluent parents would *all* have a choice, and be proud to send their children to the local school, regardless of economic geography.  I understand the reservations, the questions as to whether government programs can really be effective in providing adequate support to the low-capital families responsible for pulling schools down – to diminishing the climate, as you might put it.  I have my own concerns as to how much we can ever truly do for these families.  The best thing might be to simply remove them from mainstream classes and develop more comprehensive special-ed type on-site programs for disruptive children (I’m reminded of the portrayal of this concept in the 4th season of The Wire).  But I strongly disagree that the schools themselves are to blame for allowing the culture to diminish.  As I hopefully have demonstrated, in reality this “culture” tends to consist of overwhelmed teachers being asked to do too much with too little. 

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