Sunday, March 3, 2013

Better Childhoods

In a latest newsletter, education commenter Robert Bligh sorts out some stunning numbers:

An American Childhood Without Preschool
Time from conception to kindergarten = 50,000 hours
Time from conception to age 18 = 164,000 hours
Time from birth to kindergarten = 44,000 hours
Time from birth to age 18 = 158,000 hours
Class time from kindergarten to graduation = 14,000 hours
Portion of childhood spent in school = 8.9 percent
Portion of childhood spent someplace else = 91.1 percent

He then makes a useful point: "What kids need is not better schools, but better childhoods."

This is a damning social indictment, which in its truth paints the dillema in stark terms: the problem isn't in the classroom, but in families themselves, thus limiting the power of larger society to intervene.  What kind of policy would create better families?  How much of the effects are going to be indirect, such as availability of quality employment, reduction in crime or substance abuse, or child and health care?

To begin with we must ask ourselves what it actually means to have a poor childhood in the first place.  Reflecting on my own classroom teaching science courses designed for lower-performing high school students, I am surrounded by evidence of poor childhoods.  It is a fact that socio-economics correlates with academic performance, and this is no less true for my students.

While my knowledge of my students' home lives is limited, it is almost a truism to say that those who are struggling in school are doing so because of trouble at home.  The number one problem most struggling students have is one of motivation, in keeping up their faith in the prospect of education being a rewarding experience.  For those most at-risk, the ones with consistently poor academic performance, those struggling to pass their classes, the problem is not the difficulty of the courses, but rather simply their willingness to maintain focused on completing their work and paying attention in class.  If a student is able to concentrate in class, and has the determination to succeed, the teacher is able to demand more of them knowing that they will be successful.

I teach lower-level science courses.  Most of my students have demonstrated a history of receiving low grades in prior years, and so they have been counseled to take less demanding coursework, so that they stand a chance of passing their courses and eventually being able to graduate.  I see first-hand the origins of their academic failure, as they struggle to meet even the lower bar I set in my classroom.  Don't get me wrong, I would love to raise it.  The problem is that I would only be setting them up to fail; just this last semester, I gave failing grades to 40% of my students.  After bending over backwards for many of them - accepting late work, designing modified curriculum, awarding them points for simple tasks, not assigning them homework or other projects requiring them to work independently - nearly half still could not manage to complete the minimum standards for a passing grade.

So, what is the problem here?  They were being held accountable by me when I would not give them passing credit.  Yet this was not enough.  They clearly lacked enough intrinsic motivation within themselves to demonstrate the most basic acceptable behavior.

Essential to the conservative worldview is the notion of personal responsibility and free choice.  A conservative colleague of mine, one very familiar with the type of students I teach, once commented to me that it isn't hard to be successful - just do your work!  The implication is that these students are making a conscious choice to fail, and thus it is their own fault.  When and if they graduate, and go on to work for poverty wages because of a lack of personal investment and commitment, they have no one but themselves to blame.

The problem with this is, as they say, turtles all the way down.  That is, the assumption is that these low-wage workers have made their own choices.  But the choices they made began in high school.  And yet, when looked at demographically, as a group these students have one thing in common - disadvantage.  College graduates, as a class making much more money than high school graduates, in turn make more than high school dropouts, tend to come from families with higher incomes, more education, less mental health issues, life problems, etc.  If there really was such a thing as free choice going on, something by definition accessible to every conscious individual, you would expect there to be no correlation between family background and personal choice.  Children of high school dropouts would be as likely to "choose" to do well in school as those of college graduates.  Instead, we see very strong correlative relationships between family background and academic success.  Furthermore, what in high school are described as free choices - not paying attention in class, not completing assignments, etc. - also highly correlate with poor performance in middle school, in turn correlating with poor performance in elementary, in turn correlating with low levels of academic preparedness in kindergarten.

So what appears to be free choice is actually rooted in something larger, something deeper in the student's history.  And as we descend backwards in time, it becomes more and more difficult to describe the child's decision-making process as "free".  That is, a 17 year old senior who doesn't finish his homework seems like a choice that is as free as any an individual might make.  Yet a first-grader's choice to play with his pencil instead of finish his paragraph is intuitively understood to be a product of cognitive or emotional limitations, especially ones that demand a rigorous external disciplinary structure.  As a child grows, the choices he makes, clearly rooted in the developmental environment in which he has been raised, slowly transform, as his consciousness and self-awareness become more apparent, into choices that seem less rooted in his developmental environment.  But with enough information about his history, one can empirically trace a line of causality between this environment and his teenage, even his adult, behavior.  What's more, without even knowing the specific individual, one can predict his teenage and adult behavior merely by knowing the socioeconomic circumstances of his childhood with a frightening degree of reliability.

Proponents of early childhood education point all of this out, arguing that the earlier disadvantaged children are given the skills to succeed in school, the more likely they are to overcome the challenges of poverty.  This is a laudable policy position.  But it remains to be seen just how effective it can ultimately be, as long as larger social trends are at play.

There is only so much a school environment can offer a child, at least the kinds of environments currently on offer in mainstream educational pedagogic policy.  The problem in education is seen as one of an academic skills deficit, and so policy is designed to better deliver to students these skills.  The research is clear that disadvantaged children come to kindergarten years behind advantaged peers in vocabulary and numeracy.  The thinking is that by catching these kids up quickly, the achievement gap will be erased.  This is true enough as far as it goes.  However, something more troubling lurks underneath.  Child development is about more than mastery of academic skills.  More important are the deeper, more difficult to quantify areas of a child's growth. 

A troubling memory haunts me, one indicative of a larger problem in education.  As a graduate student in the Portland State college of education, I once proposed to a professor that there were other things being taught in the classroom aside from the academic standards that were surely important to the children's development.  Obviously disturbed by my question, she shot back that if I were to be teaching things in the classroom that were not in the state academic standards, then I should think about a different career.  On the spot, I tried to quickly think of an example of something important to a child's development that fell outside the rigid lines of the standards.  I can't remember what I said, but it was true that I wasn't capable of addressing the question.  It was largely an intuition I had that there was more to school, more to learning than mastering academics.  However, the professor wasn't just uninterested in my inquiry, she was actively offended by it.

My question never did get answered at university.  In the years that followed, I taught classroom after classroom of disadvantaged students, at all grade levels, first as a substitute in Reading, Pennsylvania, then in the communities that surrounded Palm Springs, CA - a resort community with an insatiable appetite for low-wage, immigrant service workers, then as a kindergarten teacher in Indio, CA, then as a high school science teacher at a continuation school, and now at a regular high school in the poverty-ridden high desert.  Again and again, I've seen our education system failing in its best attempts to deliver to disadvantaged students skills equal to those of advantaged students.  I've seen bad teaching, but mostly I've seen smart, dedicated, passionate teachers doing their best to deliver high-quality instruction in what often seem like impossible circumstances.

Teachers of disadvantaged students are expected to teach their students the same academic content as advantaged peers, and are then measured by their students' performance on tests of this academic content.  Allowances are made for the fact that disadvantaged students struggle more academically, and so will generally have lower test scores.  However, progress is expected, under the assumption that eventually, through good teaching, disadvantaged students will one day all perform at the level of advantaged peers, the achievement-gap thus closed.  The underlying, implied premise here, is that despite any disadvantages students might face, quality educational instruction is capable of erasing the effects of poverty and disadvantage from American society.  A liberal notion, countering the unwieldy conservative premise that the disadvantaged only have themselves to blame, it seeks to correct the injustice of structural disadvantage through technocratic, government intervention. 

However, as socialist as this sounds in principle - that society is coming together to guarantee a basic level of education to all students -  the reality is anything but.  The actual delivery of government intervention through public education makes little account for levels of disadvantage among actual school children.  From Baltimore to Chicago to New York City to Los Angeles, disadvantaged students are provided roughly the same service as their advantaged peers: one teacher per 30 children, in one classroom, with a set of curriculum, a stack of textbooks and a desk for each kid.  Title I funding, apportioned by need, allows disadvantaged students a free or reduced breakfast and lunch, with a few funds left over for maybe an extra counselor and a few teacher's aids. 

This, as a remedy to the inequities of socioeconomic disadvantage.  When people speak of "throwing money at the problem", as they claim we have done, this is what they are talking about.  Instead, what we need, many will argue - indeed at this point majorities across the political spectrum, from the leaders of the Republican party to the Democratic president and his secretary of education, as a group advocates of what is called "education reform", is better teaching, higher standards, and innovative charters.  The real problem standing in the way of closing the achievement gap, as they tell it, comes down to low-quality teachers and the unions that protect them. 

There is no doubt that a great teacher can have dramatic effects in the classroom, providing a much more enriching experience than a bad teacher.  And there is no doubt that union contracts can have the effect of making it difficult to remove these teachers from the classroom.  However, the issue is much more complex.  To begin with, a "bad" teacher in a classroom of disadvantaged kids might be perfectly adequate in a classroom of advantaged kids; I can attest from personal experience that the two jobs are entirely different.  Advantaged kids are generally academically prepared, have less stress in their lives due to more stable homes, cleaner, safer and more optimistic neighborhoods, causing them to have more intrinsic motivation and fewer behavioral problems.  The difference between a student who is unmotivated, unhappy, hates school, doesn't do his homework and is more interested in showing his friends how tough and cool he is, and a student who is happy, motivated, excited about learning and unconcerned with rebellious peer pressure, is unfathomably wide.  This is the difference between a soldier running training exercises and a soldier under fire on the battlefield.  "Good" teachers at disadvantaged schools have to be amazing just to be good.  There is a reason the least experienced teachers tend to teach at these schools: few want to.  The job is harder - more stressful, more demanding, and generally emotionally exhausting.  In the labor market of education, experience is leverage, and it is generally used to purchase a more enjoyable and, well, manageable work day. 

Our current education model is not addressing this disparity in the profession.  The simple reason is that it doesn't have the money.  It isn't even worthwhile imagining what it might mean to truly make teaching a classroom of disadvantaged students a job with demands roughly equivalent of teaching a classroom of advantaged students if there isn't the money to do it.  But this gets to the more complicated answer: what would it actually take to make such changes?  Proponents of education reform, with a current majority of political support, focus only on the quality of the teacher, with nary a word to say about anything else that might improve a student's academic success.   Some seem genuinely offended by the notion that we look at anything but the performance of the teacher, much less discount that the problem even lies with teacher effectiveness at all.  Many go so far as to suggest that doing so is merely making excuses, and not, as Michelle Rhee stiffly asserts, "putting students first".  I can't help but be reminded of my college professor's bullying suggestion that I think about leaving the profession entirely.

But one might as easily turn the question around, and ask if in ignoring the larger issues, and focusing solely on a problem - the teacher - that may be of only marginal import - is to be making excuses, or to not be putting students first.  Is it, for instance, putting students first to pack 30 students from Chicago's south side into a classroom with one teacher, when, as a demographic group, the students are likely to be suffering from any number of social ills that are actively impeding the teachers ability to teach them, and their ability to learn?  Is it putting students first to give a free or reduced breakfast and lunch, maybe access to a counselor or part-time teachers aide but otherwise expect students from broken homes, with incarcerated parents, violent neighborhoods, uneducated parents who work long hours for low pay at stressful, unrewarding jobs, to succeed in school with a teacher who can't possibly address the larger issues that impact their lives and their ability to learn?

Robert Bligh proposes that what children need are better childhoods.  Can the state provide that?  I'm not so sure - we've never tried.  Our economic system is dependent on millions of low-wage workers.  Our system of property forces them into segregated neighborhoods.  Anything that might effect your ability to leverage yourself in the labor force will push you further down the economic rung, further into one of these neighborhoods.  Families whose heads-of-household suffer from health problems, mental illness, substance abuse, lack of education or lack of loving, supportive childhoods will be forced to live together in communities of disadvantage.  A lack of social capital will come to define their relationships, segregating them further not just by geography but by cultural and social networks.   A recent NPR story described a study which directly linked certain disadvantaged children's temperaments with behavioral problems, depending on how much nurturing they received at home. 
If the baby had.... an insecure attachment to his or her mother, the child's later behavior was often deeply troubled. These were by far the worst of all of the kids.
These children will go to schools together, and bring their disadvantages with them, only to be presented with an education system woefully inadequate to meeting their needs, to offering them the support they need to succeed.

Given the severity of the disadvantage poor students face, our educational system as currently designed is no where near capable of delivering on a promise of delivering unto them the depth of skills they need, finally closing the achievement gap.  In our continued emphasis on cold academic standards, we miss the larger story of what it means to grow up healthy and happy.  If disadvantaged students came to school with low levels of stress, feeling pleasant, loved, and optimistic about their future, would they need an "amazing" teacher?  I don't think so.

For so long we've been asking the wrong questions.  Just like a military, when faced with an existential threat, only sees combat as the best option, so too has our approach to the achievement gap been "militarized".  We have a public education system that graduates children ready to take on the world, and when they aren't ready, we think the solution is to fix the education system.  But just as diplomacy seeks to solve problems peacefully, by forging an alternative path to war, what we need to close the achievement gap is to look for answers outside our traditional education system. 

This isn't to say that education isn't a crucial aspect of a child's development, but rather to point out the seemingly obvious fact that there is a lot more to raising successful children than academic curriculum delivered in a traditional classroom setting.  Children need to feel loved.  They need to feel safe.  They need to feel special and important.  If we are relying on a teacher in a classroom of students to be the vehicle through which a deficit in these things is compensated for, we are destined for failure. 

Maybe the solution to the education problem isn't really education at all.

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