Monday, May 28, 2012


Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, was on the Colbert Report last week.  In the interview, she claimed that people of color don't use drugs at higher rates than whites.  Colbert then asked her, "why didn't David Simon set The Wire in Greenwich, Connecticut?"  I'm skeptical of her claim.  What kind of drugs are being compared?  Surely more crack is smoked in the ghetto than in Greenwich.  But regardless, an obvious answer to this question is that the Wire is about the drug trade, and whites must get their drugs from somewhere.  I'm also wary of the notion seemingly argued in the book that much of the problems facing the black community have to do with drug laws and biased enforcement.  But having not read the book, I'll refrain from comment.

However, a common response to the notion of dysfunction in the black community, mainly coming from the the right, is the idea that  "they need to fix their own problems".  This rests on the assumption that larger society bears no responsibility - whether structurally or because of explicit bias.  Further, many on the right claim that indeed, it is the claim that minorities are in any way victims that actively perpetuates a sense of victim hood, thus driving behavioral dysfunction.  If one thinks of oneself as a victim, then a nihilism sets in and hopelessness leads to low self-expectations and lowered standards of behavior.  This is quite a theory!  But is it true?

 In my work with at-risk, minority teenagers, there is some degree of resentment and distrust of white people, and it is sometimes vocalized as an "excuse" of sorts to explain their poor behavior. But the larger dynamic of dysfunctional community breakdown and lack of societal capital is far more salient. It isn't as if these kids are sitting around resenting white people and thinking up a narrative of how their problems are all white people's fault.

Actually, in my many conversations with them regarding their poor behavior, they cite the existence of cultural norms in which they feel they must participate in order to survive. They fight because they have to prove they are tough. They misbehave because they don't have a strong family structure at home supporting them. Their role-models are not academically inclined, but toughs who have lots of girls and smoke or sell lots of pot.

Now, they do see themselves as victims. But they are! They are profoundly unlucky, born into such a world. They don't understand who is to blame. They don't understand how the system works, much less how white racism might even be an issue. The most cohesive narrative I've heard has revolved around illuminati conspiracies - their music idols are frequently thought of as having literally made deals with the devil to achieve fame and fortune.

No, their sense of victimization is based on looking around them, at their friends and families. They began down a negative path when they were in elementary school, struggling with schoolwork and dealing with chaos at home. Before they knew it they had developed behaviors and habits that made them rebels. Success meant failing well.

They say that black America must take a hard look at itself. Doesn't it already, on a daily basis? People are doing the best they know how. My students' parents are trying to parent the best they know how. Yet teen parents and dropouts are going to be at a severe disadvantage when raising children, not only because of their lower levels of human capital, but because of social and economic segregation that places them in neighborhoods, peer groups and apartment complexes with low levels of societal capital.

My main issue with what seems to be the thesis of Alexander's book is that it equates the conscious, explicit racism of Jim Crow with a modern system in which racial bias might exist, but is marginal to the larger structural problems afflicting poor and minority communities. I think it is a disservice to individuals to limit the scope of the inequities they face to racial bias, when they are caught up in a far larger and more damaging social and economic system that limits their opportunities from birth.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Siren Song of Race

Ulysses and the Sirens, Draper, 1909
Adam Serwer writes of continuing conservative denial of racism as an ongoing issue in society - that discrimination and racial bias are persistent threats to equality.  He points to a recent spate of rhetoric claiming that the real threat is actual minority-on-white hate crimes.  Conservatives pretending that racism isn't a problem is nothing new.  Many seem unable to grasp its basic nature, and importantly the concept of unconscious bias.  As Serwer writes,
Moreover, the notion that explicit racial violence is the only accurate barometer for bigotry ignores the uncountable ways institutional prejudice can sustain itself without explicit violence. Even if hate crimes in 2010 were slightly higher in 2008 instead of being lower, that wouldn't alter the fact that more young black men were "randomly" stopped and frisked in New York City than there are young black men in New York City.

However, in laying out the basic conservative position on race, Serwer makes an interesting claim.  He writes that conservatives believe
"disparities in wealth, employment, and education are simply manifestations of self-perpetuating discrepancies in human capital".   
Yet as a pretty radically progressive.  I think this is largely true.  How can this be?
All three of these disparities - wealth, employment, education - are tightly woven into SES, which is more of a predictor of income mobility than anything else.  Upper SES minorities will do very well.  To the extent that certain races/ethnicities are disproportionately lower-SES, this is indeed a function of historical racism.  But its lasting effects have little to do with discrimination, and much to do with ghettoization and the effect of entire communities of people lacking in human and societal capital.

So how does this play out politically?  I've long felt that the national conversation on education is confused and misguided.  Yet the confusion may lie in a larger misunderstanding of the way our society works, specifically with regard to poverty and class.  Our general political polarization both feeds and is fed by this misunderstanding, and I think Serwer's assumption is illustrative of the confusion on both the left and right.

For at least the past 40 years, the left and right in America have been at odds over race and class.  The civil rights movement made it clear to all that racism is wrong (at least consciously), and yet deep disparities continue to exist.  The right long ago adopted a stance that racism, no longer codified and thus eradicated, was no longer an issue, and that minorities were now free to succeed in America.  The fact that they haven't been is proof not of racism but of either bad genes or simple lack of will or choice.  A popular, third explanation relies on the ironic notion that it has actually been progressive welfare policies that have kept minority groups poor by removing the threat of failure, which ostensibly would have forced them to "pull themselves up". 

This explanation is interesting because it relies on an acceptance of environmental, behavioral mechanisms, which historically have made up the core of the progressive critique of capitalism; our system of property and economy is by nature oppressive because it relies on the perpetual exploitation of lower-capital individuals by the higher-capital, inevitably reinforcing class, or capital stratification.  A central component of this argument is the role of the environment, especially education, in cementing class immobility through the limiting of societal capital resources and thus human capital development.  The right-wing claim that welfare creates class immobility essentially mimics the progressive argument, yet flips it on its head and indicts not the capitalist system as a whole, but attempts to reform it. 

Both visions see the problem as environmental and behavioral, yet the right see no problem with capitalist class stratification itself, and imagine that left to their own devices, people ought to be able to attain any level of success they so desire.  So they acknowledge government intervention as a negative behavioral factor, necessarily limiting human will and potential, yet disregard class itself, including the notion of human and societal capital, as a limiting factor.  Considering the epic, total scope of behavioral effects of class on human potential, one wonders how limited government intervention could possibly compete as a negative influence on capital development.  The notion on the right is that people are choosing to live off of food stamps and government assistance instead of choosing paths of success.  Yet without the larger, pervasive effects of limited human and societal capital, how could the siren song of food stamps have much pull?  Who for instance, in a middle class family sets out to live a life "as many conservatives might put it" of suckling at the government teet?

Unfortunately, when race comes into the picture, we seem to have trouble dealing with these deeper issues of class and capital.  Because of a right-wing backlash against left-wing charges of extant social racism, many seem still to be stuck hashing out battles from decades ago.  Progressives look at ethnic disparities in income, employment and education and can't help but see it in racialized terms.  There is obviously a racial component to this injustice, especially since it was only a few decades ago that these disparities were all but codified by law.  Conservatives, loathe to admit structural problems endemic to capitalism, and feeling assaulted culturally by the post-Southern left, with their pointy-headed talk of the unconscious and continued critiques of cherished tradition, point to the fact that racism has all but been denounced by society at large, and that they can't be held responsible for continued failure of low-SES minorities to succeed.

A back-and-forth reactionaryism ensues, in which progressives - correctly - charge conservatives with race-denialism, and conservatives - correctly - charge progressives with using race to avoid talking about individual responsibility in minority communities.  Neither is completely true, but neither completely false either.

Progressives, like Serwer, do disservice to their larger, progressive moral claim when they pretend that the problems facing minorities are all about race.  They clearly aren't.  At core, the issue is a failure to develop human and societal capital.  This disparity of capital began with race, but now has become so entrenched after multiple generations that it can perpetuate itself on its own, without discrimination to drive it.  That doesn't mean that there still isn't discrimination.  And at some level, unconscious bias pervades our politics and drives disagreement over whether or not low-SES minority communities deserve extra help.

A productive discussion would begin with the acknowledgement on both sides that human and societal capital are lacking in poor communities.  We can both acknowledge that it was, at least originally, established by a legacy of racism.  We can then have the debate about what we as a society should do about it.  If conservatives see government assistance as a problem, they can then put forward a narrative of how these communities would be expected to find success on their own, given the cycle of capital depletion they face.  Progressives can make the case for government interventions that will not foster dependency but build capital. 

As it stands, race is a polarizing distraction from what really matters: equal access for all to economic and social justice.  In education - arguably the most important leverage point for social equality - progressive reliance on racism as a substitute for class critique has led them to the belief that poor educational outcomes in poor minority communities is a function of teacher quality, with the implicit, unspoken assumption that racism must be a factor.  This has allowed them to partner with conservatives, as a group uninterested in social critiques or government intervention, to also see the teacher as the locus of dysfunction, with the implicit, unspoken assumption that a large number of minority students have themselves to blame for their dysfunction, and don't deserve assistance.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Worthy Cost

Regular readers of this blog know that I am severely disappointed with current reform proposals.  My own proposals essentially involve massive spending on disadvantaged student populations to implement interventions that truly work.  To pay for this, my claim is Marxist in that it makes the moral argument that our current economic and social system is built upon the systematic exploitation of an underclass and their denial of access to human and social capital.

I recently receive push-back on my proposal, on the grounds that it would be prohibitively expensive. At an ordinary 3000 student school in a poor community, simply implementing an NCLB  testing regime would only cost taxpayers $150,000, it was claimed.

Education is already a major social expense, and asking citizens to pay maybe 2-3x more for disadvantaged students is a tough sell. It amounts to a major redistribution of wealth. I would argue it is just, as well as ultimately a financial bargain if it increases productivity and saves on social costs of dysfunctional adults. However, if the result is true equality of educational outcomes, we then face the problem of capitalism currently being inherently exploitative of low-capital workers. If we raise human capital across the board, how are we going to manage the fact that so much of our economy relies on low-skill, low-pay labor?

I would further argue that this dynamic itself causes downward pressure on community capital as low-income ghettos form, thus requiring further redistribution of wealth in the form of increased social services. All of this - heavy government intervention - is enough to want to wash one's hands of the social justice argument and adopt a more Darwinian attitude toward poverty (let the strong (high-capital) survive), or at least pretend that simple, non-interventionist fixes like better teaching and charter schools will "do the trick".

But, back to the original question. The $150k estimate on testing does seem a far cheaper solution. I'm not sure what that number represents, but I'll assume it's reasonable to think current reform measures are far cheaper.

An average per-pupil cost of $7K at a 3000 student school nets $21 million. Halving class sizes from 30 to 15 would mean paying for 200 teachers. You have regular administrative costs. I mentioned field trips, counselors - maybe 10? I would like to see home nurse visits at the elementary level. I'd like to see parenting classes. I'd like to see social workers . I'd like to see an organized intervention system whereby families get direct, targeted help. Let's say we had an administrative and support staff equal in number to teachers. That puts us at 400. Let's do an average salary of $70K. That puts us at $27 million. If we increased per-pupil spending 3x, we'd be at $21k. That would give us $63 million. Mind you, this would just be disadvantaged (parent income, education) kids, and we could possibly drop funding from wealthier districts. But its going to be really expensive.

Child poverty in CA is at 23%. There are 6 million students. 1,380,00 pupils at $21k each is nearly $3 billion. That's less than 1% of the $400 billion in state and local tax revenues. Of course, the politics of government taxation and spending isn't so easy. But If what I'm proposing ends up being effective, the extra expense would clearly be worth it.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Race is About SES

County courthouse lawn, Halifax, NC, 1938
The NY Times reports this morning on the continuing pattern of segregated schools in New York City.  The article goes through the motions, highlights familiar themes: white teachers, black students, race and socioeconomics being inseparable, white parents moving to where schools are more white, black parents feeling misunderstood, black students equating academic success with "acting white", charter schools trying to turn things around by requiring uniforms, plastering the walls with slogans, calling students "scholars", enforcing rigid discipline, and yet generally failing to raise scores and being thought of as "prisons" by students.

I don't deny race is a part of this story.  But it is a by-product of larger themes in our economy and society, specifically the fact that certain racial groups, historically discriminated against and therefore disadvantaged in their ability to build human and societal capital.  This translates into a continued correlation between those groups and lack of economic success.  I don't deny that racial attitudes and cultural norms play some marginally negative role in the continued link between SES and race, but it is far less consequential than SES by itself.

One of the issues raised in articles like this is modern white flight.  White families are staying out of black and Hispanic schools. I think it is important to make a distinction between modern white flight and that of half a century ago, when the civil rights movement ushered in a larger movement of whites out of the cities and into the suburbs.  There were other pressures at work, but as explicit racial attitudes were clearly much different then, it isn't hard to see how race was a major driving factor.  Today, explicit attitudes on race are quite different, and while racism clearly persists, it is much more marginal a feature of the phenomenon of white flight and persistent segregation than simple socioeconomic realities.

So, let's do a thought experiment.  Two neighborhoods exist: one, predominantly African American, one predominantly white.  Yet - and this is of course a rarity - the black neighborhood is largely affluent, its members possessing large amounts of human and societal capital, while the white neighborhood is poor, its members possessing low levels of capital.  For purposes of our experiment, we'll assume that schools in the black neighborhood are high-achieving, while those in the white neighborhood are not (in reality, this would be a very sound prediction according to the data on the link between SES - not race - and school performance).

Which neighborhood school would you like your children to attend?  Of course, ethnicity is a reasonable factor to consider, especially if you are a minority concerned about your child losing his natural heritage.  But the choice is really quite clear.  You want the best education for your child.  You want them surrounded by students from less-stressed, happier homes, fewer discipline problems, better prepared classmates, better organized parents and school culture, etc.  This is all a function of societal capital in which the student population has been developing throughout their childhood.  You want them to attend the majority black school.

Until we address the larger issue of inequity in human and societal capital, racial segregation is going to persist.  As long as our economy is arranged by class, a major requirement of it being a large portion of the workforce performing low-skill labor for low pay, there are going to be economic ghettos, defined as they are by socioeconomic segregation.  And those who will inevitably fill these ranks will be those who have been subject to generational inequities of many types - discrimination, low education, broken families, etc.

Public education is the best resource we have right now for correcting this phenomenon at the margins.  But the perennial question remains - if all have access to an equal education, who will clean the toilets?  There will be a need in the long-term foreseeable future for a great number of low-SES occupations, which will inevitably self-sort into ghettos.  Given the history of African Americans and Latinos in America, especially the influx of immigrant labor from Latin America, these ghettos will no doubt still have an ethnic correlation.  The segregation won't be codified by law, but by our social and economic system.

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. 

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?