"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, November 21, 2005

More Stupidity by Brent Staples and the NY Times

Blaming the schools for all sorts of societal failures has become such a part of our tradition that the history of American schooling is constituted now as an unending succession of criticisms, reactions, and reforms, none of which is allowed time to work before being replaced by the next one that is intended to solve another collective illness that can be blamed on a bad educational system rather than the real culprits—most often bad planning and decision-making at the national level, or the unchanging realities of poverty and discrimination that sustain achievement gaps. It is customary, too, for media elites to use the economic scare arguments to push one or the other favored educational reforms as a way to mask the inability or lack of will to address the underlying problems for which the schools continue to be blamed.

The current debate is no different, and Brent Staples’ fad du jour in today’s Times is a fine example. Instead of addressing the problem of poverty and racism that undercut the democratic aspirations to which we continue, so far, to give lip service, commentators like Staples and politicians like Bush rarely waver in blaming the schools for putting our economic security in jeopardy by failing to achieve what poverty and racism make impossible. The sad, but irrefutable, fact remains that the achievement gap that we hear so much about is a product of the income and opportunity gap, which is a product of a tradition of racism that goes back over 300 years in this country. It is a problem that will not be resolved by pretending it is the fault of the schools.

What makes this morning’s New York Times school demonization editorial any different from the average garden variety one, is that this time, in its haste to lambaste the schools by making test score comparisons with other nations, Staples does not bother to note that the other better nation, this time Japan, has been in economic recession for over 15 years, despite its seemingly advanced education strategies grounded in homogeneity and groupthink. I ask you, Mr. Staples, is this the kind of model that we should emulate to keep America from becoming “a second-rate economic power?”

With this current round of frenzied attacks on American public schools coming on the heels of the greatest economic boom of all times in this country during the 1990s, one must wonder what form the attack would take if the American economy had been in recession, like Japan’s, since 1989? We would have already boarded up the windows of the public schools and given all the children their little vouchers to the nearest Baptist academies, or else enrolled the poor ones in the corporate welfare MacSchools based on instructional robotization—and America would have become no closer to economic recovery than the Japanese are today, still funding almost half their annual budget through borrowing.

But at least, by then, the real school agenda would have been achieved, and we could find another public instituional enemy to blame for keeping us from a well-deserved happiness that awaits us in our future, once that future can be cleared of civic purpose and the constraints of conscience.

Jim Horn


  1. "It is customary, too, for media elites to use the economic scare arguments to push one or the other favored educational reforms as a way to mask the inability or lack of will to address the underlying problems for which the schools continue to be blamed."

    ...the differnce between the media elites and us poor little bloggers is their ability to reach vast numbers of people. here, we write to each other; the choir.

    the key to unlocking the opportunity of support, if not only awareness, is founded in our own will and creativity, perhaps our courage and conviction.

    if we don't expand our own audience to include the yet uneducated, unaware, or maybe just isolated potentials, we could simply be participating in the serenade as the ship sinks...

    making a comotion, risking direct exposure, "acting up", might just be the cure.

  2. James Horn says: "The sad, but irrefutable, fact remains that the achievement gap that we hear so much about is a product of the income and opportunity gap, which is a product of a tradition of racism that goes back over 300 years in this country." The thesis that income differences, and race-related opportunity differences are responsible for the measured difference in standardized test performance, on the one hand, and the thesis that schools are responsibile for the performance gap, on the other hand, are not mutually exclusive. School policy is designed by legislators and academics, that is, by people who are good at school, by people who have spent their entire lives in school. The goals they proclaim and the incentives they offer are foreign to many normal children. Training an artistically inclined or mechanically inclined child for an academic career using a transcript as the incentive is like teaching a cat to swim using carrots as the reward. What we call the "public school system" is a policy which restricts a parent's options for the use of the taxpayers' pre-college education subsidy to schools operated by the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel. This system originated in anti-Catholic bigotry and survives on assiduous lobbying by current recipients of the taxpayers' $400 billion subsidy.

    If "racism" is involved, it is a form of racism which denies to minority parents the power to determine for themselves which institution, if any, shall receive the taxpayers pre-college education subsidy. Doubt this? Propose the repeal of assignment by district and see who objects.

    The correlation (score, %20K+dist) is negative, where "score" is NAEP 4th or 8th grade Reading or Math score, and "%20K+ dist" is the fraction of total enrollment assigned to districts over 20,000 enrollment (smaller is better). The correlation (score, age-start) is positive, where "age-start" is the age at which States compel attendance at school (later is better). The correlation between the --difference-- between the white mean score and the black mean score and %20K+dist is positive (large districts exacerbate inequality). The ETS reports a far smaller race-related score gap on the SAT within the homeschool population than within the population of conventionally-schooled children. In Alaska, where homeschoolers may use a State-supplied curriculum and enroll in "virtual" schools, the mean score of homeschooled children of high-school educated parents, on State assessments, is higher than the mean score of students of college-trained teachers in conventional schools. In Belgium, where taxpayers support a parent's choice of school, Herman Brutsaert found a lower correlation between parent income and test scores in parochial schools than in State schools (State schools exacerbate inequality).

    In Hawaii, juvenile arrests --fall-- in summer, when school is not in session. Juvenile hospitalizations for human-induced trauma fall in summer. Reported burglaries fall in summer.

    From all of the above I extract the following generalizations: 1) As institutions take from parents the power to determine for their own children the choice of curriculum and the pace and method of instruction, student performance falls. 2) Political control of school harms most the children of the least politically adept parents.

    Education is related to income and income is related to longevity. Income aside, education is related to longevity as education aids navigation around life's hazards. The $400 billion+ K-12 which US taxpayers spend each year to maintain the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel is a small part of the cost of the US "public" (i.e., government) school system. The cost of this system includes reduced life expectancy, losses due to crime, and the cost of prison for the por kids whose lives we trash.

  3. I know this original post is ancient (by today's standards) but I wanted to leave a comment anyway.

    Had you spoken to me even 10 years ago, after just a couple of years teaching in NYC I would have said, "Huzzah!" in quite a loud voice. But I've now spent over 15 years in education (teaching) 5 in education writing (curriculum) and 7 as a parent of a kid who SHOULD have been The Golden Boy in school but didn't fit into the vary narrowly defined model of what 'a high performing student' should be (another little item there--how boys are being pushed out in elementary schools...another topic for another day)


    My main point is this: There was a very good article that came out somewhere around the turn of the Millennia that tracked upper and upper-middle class African American and White students in an affluent suburb of (I believe) Chicago. This study was TRYING to prove--once and for all-- that inept education for the poorest among us was the rule of the day, and that when you took the highest socio-economic group you'd see the "color gap" disappear in test scores.

    That didn't happen.

    The teachers at my school in NYC could have told you that.

    We taught good kids. Nice kids. HUGE socio-economic range. HUGE IQ range. Huge everything range, but good, nice kids. Hard-working families (mostly). WWwwaaay better students/smarter kids than the white suburban kids I taught in SoCal before.


    They had lousy test scores. They made lousy decisions about their daily lives and their futures.

    We taught them testing strategies. I had a 92% passing rate on the English Regents test in NYC for my first cohort to take the newer/harder test. That's astounding. That includes Special Ed kids. That's close to Stuyvesant/Bronx Science/Brooklyn Tech levels.

    The kids STILL bombed the SAT/ACT.

    I can testify to two things:
    1) those kids got a better high school education than I ever did
    2) I tested better than they ever did.

    This problem is not easily solved. The answer isn't in vouchers. The problem isn't in clever formulas. The problem isn't--really, it's not--in a cabal of Union Idiots Trying to Screw The Rest Of Us (though I do think they're often idiots). In my experience it comes down to two things:
    1) Kids who are prepared to learn will learn no matter who the teacher is or how much they suck (b/c those kids have content in their brains that they can add too...so everything is relevant)
    2) Great curriculum in the hands of a lousy teacher will result in mediocre learning at best, while lousy curriculum in the hands of a great teacher will result in fine learning for the kids.

    And the caveat--it's really REALLY hard to train teachers to be THAT kind of good. And the Ed schools I've been around aren't even trying.

    Comparing us to other countries--even comparing different regions of the US to other regions--is a false comparison. Too many variables. That's why I'm suspect of ANY Ed research. HOW do you control for kids? How do you control for teacher ability? It's impossible.

    I think the rational among us know what works, and it's not tied to ideology or anything you can sell. But until we remove politics from the equation, remove entrenched power-opolies from decision-making bodies, and get universities out of the business of training our teachers I doubt we'll ever get back to the conversation.

    Thanks for the blog. I've not read you before and I'm Bloglining you so I can keep up.

    Many thanks,