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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 13 2011

New York Times Op-Ed Frustration

I read the New York Times a lot, and naturally I pay special attention when the Times publishes articles on education reform.  Today’s article, the op-ed “The Unaddressed Link Between Poverty and Education”, had me upset all day.  Its authors, Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske, make the argument that we should address poverty, rather than schools, because there’s such a strong correlation between a student’s socioeconomic background and his or her academic performance.

Their argument isn’t new, and this article isn’t an especially strong version of it.  Many of the ideas they promote make more sense as part of school reform than as uncoordinated efforts: high-quality preschool, early language exposure, enrichment programs, and health and nutrition support are all on the radar screens of reformers who want to improve student achievement and understand that these issues play a role.  It just doesn’t make sense to drop school-centered reforms and address these issues separately.  It also doesn’t make sense for these programs to be the main focus in situations where administrative leadership and teacher effectiveness are lacking, which is unfortunately the case at many struggling schools.

At one point, the article acknowledges that education policy makers “can’t take on poverty itself”.  I agree that that’s the case, but if it’s true, then why do the authors advocate doing exactly that?

I was especially frustrated that it specifically mentions a lot of things that I think are good, then discredit them as bad without explaining why.  For example, “policy makers mistakenly continue to reason that, since they cannot change the backgrounds of students, they should focus on things they can control.”  I don’t think this is a mistake. Even if student backgrounds are responsible for 80% of their poor performance and failing schools are only responsible for 20%, it still makes more sense to focus on fixing the 20% of things we have control over than it does to flail about blaming student demographics.

Similarly, the article acknowledges out that some schools “have managed to ‘beat the odds’”, then dismisses out of hand the thought of scaling those programs: “the evidence does not support the view that the few success stories can be scaled up to address the needs of large populations of disadvantaged students.”

Why not?  Even if you don’t like charter schools (the authors cite the KIPP system as their example of success), you can still implement many of their best practices in a traditional public school setting.  Right now, this doesn’t happen regularly, partly due to excessive animosity between the two camps.  I’m not certain what evidence the article is referring to here, but we should remember that, regardless of any faults they may have, the best charter schools do employ some really successful strategies.  If our education system cannot bring those effective strategies to scale (and I sometimes worry that this is the case), then that’s a systemic problem that needs to be remedied; it’s not an excuse to stop developing techniques that lead to greater student achievement.

I hope that we can get beyond politics and defeatism to achieve dramatic improvements in our country’s schools, but when I see articles like this one, I worry that our national conversation is stuck in the same unproductive place it’s been for decades.  The current ed reform movement has so much potential; please, let’s not quash it with lame arguments.

6 Responses

  1. I agree that “you can still implement many of their [charter schools] best practices in a traditional public school setting.” However, I also believe: “If our education system cannot bring those effective strategies to scale (and I sometimes worry that this is the case), then that’s a systemic problem that needs to be remedied.” That systemic problem is primarily the student backgrounds that account for 80% of learning differentials. Therefore, you must address poverty as part of any sustainable, ambitious solution.

  2. I’ll give you that the lack of citations for evidence is annoying, but I must have read something completely different than you did. I read that the authors are advocating for ed reforms to be more focused on developing social support systems for children in poverty. It’s all still centered around the school, but the emphasis is less on the staff in the school and more on what services the school can provide for the students beyond academics. Honestly, this isn’t such a bad idea.

    A lot of emphasis in ed reform talk is put on teachers, admin, and other staffing issues as it is the easiest stuff to play around with. It’s not easy to redirect funds towards “support services”, especially when the data that may support the implementation of these programs is likely to slowly trickle in. This is not to say that staffing issues aren’t problems in some of the most impoverished schools. However, in conjunction with staffing issues are issues stemming from the school culture, the school system, the neighborhood, the town, and on down the rabbit hole.

    I currently teach in a charter, and I love it! However, it’s experience I would recommend to only a select few of my teacher friends. It’s an intense experience with longer hours and many more kids than the average teacher of the same subject and grade would have. Some aspects, like the strong school culture, I think could be scaled up to extent. Yet, would we get the same great results if it were scaled? I don’t know, and lot of people are in the same boat. It’s a risky!

    Like you, I think that charters and anyone/thing else that can help develop strategies to help our impoverished students close the achievement gap should be supported wholeheartedly. At the same time, I recognize that my best lessons may not overcome a growling tummy in the middle of class or a the hurt of a kid yearning for stability at home. For that, we need yet another set of solutions. Ideally, ed reforms would work in conjunction with social reforms centered around the school, but again politics and defeatism from both sides of the debate keeps this from happening.

    Keep up the good work! I enjoyed your thought-provoking post :)

    • Katrina

      Thanks for the encouragement! Honestly, I’m glad you read this article in a much more positive light than I did. I agree that providing support services is an important component – you hit the nail on the head when you say that we should support strategies that close the achievement gap AND provide additional solutions to address hunger and instability at home. My worry is about what happens when schools focus on social programs instead of – rather than alongside – academic success.

      I think it’s interesting that you have far more kids than “the average teacher of the same subject and grade would at have” (at a traditional public school, I assume). In my experience, it’s been reversed. Charter middle school teachers have loads of 50-60 students, and charter elementary classrooms have two full-time teachers for ~25 students. My friends teaching in traditional secondary schools have over 100 students. This is a great example of why you can’t just say, “all charter schools do X”, because all charter schools are different.

      Hope all is going well in your classroom!

  3. Cal

    “Right now, this doesn’t happen regularly, partly due to excessive animosity between the two camps. ”

    No, it doesn’t happen regularly because KIPP’s gains are nothing more than the reasonably effective teaching of motivated kids who don’t have unmotivated kids distracting them. Which regular schools can’t do. The “excessive animosity” springs in part from KIPP’s constant bragging of their results while denying they benefit from this practice.

    ” but we should remember that, regardless of any faults they may have, the best charter schools do employ some really successful strategies. ”

    No, we shouldn’t, because there’s no evidence of this at all. Charter schools with URM students see bigger improvements. Charter schools with suburban kids lose ground. The demographics, not the methods, seem to be the key factor–and again, that suggests that dumping unmotivated kids (which are more frequent in URM majority schools) has something to do with the improvements.

    Really, happy talk and happy hope doesn’t change the facts.

    • Katrina

      Have you ever been in a high–performing charter school? They are extremely intentional about the culture they create, the techniques they use to engage kids in class and manage their behavior, the ways they reach out to parents, the lesson planning strategies their teachers use, and the coaching and professional development they offer. Walk into a school like this and you can tell within moments that it’s different. The environment feels vibrant and alive, yet disciplined – it’s kind of a cross between summer camp and military drills.

      You can argue that some percentage of charter schools’ gain comes from their demographics, but you can’t deny that they do things differently. It’s more than just “reasonably effective teaching”. It’s best practices that transcend what other schools have developed.

      Many charter schools are happy to host visitors. Find a few that are receiving accolades and go see them for yourself.

      Finally, I have witnessed a number of situations where struggling charter-school students chose to transfer to a weaker district school precisely because the district school was less demanding. The charter schools did not counsel the students out; students left in spite of the schools’ efforts to keep them. I wish that all of our schools were high-quality enough that transferring to an “easy school” were not an option.

    • Meg

      Blaming problems in public schools on unmotivated (poor) children (of color) is how (rich, white) policymakers justify ignoring the fact that your zip code and the color of your skin largely determine your educational opportunities

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