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

Friday, June 23, 2006

"Poverty Is No Excuse" Is No Excuse

"THE PROBLEM" with education is not really education. It's social and economic injustice, largely manifested as poverty, segregation, racism, and classism. As my post on McWhorter shows, there are a large number of blacks entering the middle class who are now turning their backs on low-income blacks in ways that are savage and disturbing. It shows the extent to which money, power, and privilege can be horribly corrupting forces.

"THE PROBLEM" with education is symptomatic -- literally -- of the disease of social and economic injustice. But the climate in this country is overtly hostile to this idea. It's very easy to see why: social and economic injustice gets distorted into the conversation called "Poverty Is No Excuse." It then gets further distorted by saccharine anecdotes of "the little black kid that could," the kid who -- despite the odds -- managed to graduate suma cum laude from Harvard. If you counted these little bromides up, they'd probably number in the dozens. So there exist in the public discourse on education several dozen uplifting stories about poor kids with crack-addicted mothers that made it. The moral? If they could do it, any person could. The same Horatio Alger story is applied to schools, e.g., KIPP. It goes like this: KIPP schools can take poor black kids, raise their test scores, and get them into elite prep schools. Moral of the story? If they could do it, any school could.

What's wrong with this logic? This is -- IMHO -- the most important argument to make right now RE: "THE PROBLEM" with education.

As I have been trying to argue, successfully or not, the logic behind these feel-good stories is faulty. On the individual level, the logic is faulty because NOT everyone can grow up with a crack-addicted mother and graduate suma cum laude from Harvard. If they could, these kinds of stories would never be told. We don't tell stories about the little kid who drank orange juice and then played baseball. Why not? Because every little kid can drink orange juice and play baseball. This is an UNREMARKABLE story -- a banal, commonplace, everyday event. But the reason we tell stories about poor kids with crack-addicted mothers that make it is because they are so incredibly rare. We say, "Wow! Did you hear that story about the poor kid with the crack-addicted mother that became the president of General Motors??"

Yet, for some extraordinary reason, our brains freeze up when we hear these stories. Somehow, we are simultaneously -- and paradoxically -- aware that (1) this is very rare and yet (2) if he could do it, anyone can. This makes absolutely zero sense logically. But we are inherently sentimental beasts, we Americans. So we eat this shit up because we are addicted to stories of inspiration. All we really want to do is feel good. Believing that this extraordinarily remarkable event is somehow reproducible may not make sense logically, but it makes us feel good to think that it might be possible. But feeling good is not the foundation on which public policy should be placed.

The same exact logic applies to "the little KIPP school that could." We see the story and say, "Wow! These black kids can do it. That must mean that every school and every poor black kid can do it!" But what does "do it" mean? In most cases of these feel-good stories, "do it" means higher test scores. In other words, the school is successful because it has raised test scores. This is the evidence that is presented as proof that it is successful. But higher test scores certainly does NOT mean better-educated kids. The Center on Education Policy released a report showing that non-tested subjects like art, music, and social studies are not being taught any more so schools -- including the little schools that could -- can focus exclusively on the subjects that are tested, i.e., reading and math. Translation? "Successful" schools are turning into test-prep factories.

KIPP counters this by showing that they offer a broad range of subjects -- including art, music, social studies -- and that their students are given opportunities to sing in the choir, play in the orchestra, etc. One would certainly expect that if kids spend from 7:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. during the week, four hours on Saturdays, and a month during the summer that they would be able to be exposed to a broad range of subjects. KIPP students put in roughly 70% more time in class than typical public school students.

So we say, "Hurray! Every school should be like KIPP!"

But as I've argued again and again, KIPP can't scale. Right now, there are 45 KIPP schools with 400 teachers serving over 9,000 students in 15 states and the District of Columbia. 9,000 students out of the total population of 54,593,000 students in all of public K-12 schools means that KIPP serves 0.00016486% of the population. And yet, 0.00016486% of students makes us stand up and say, "This should work for the remaining 99.999835% of students!"

The average KIPP teacher is in his/her early 20's, is single, and has no kids. They are clearly very dedicated young people who are not only willing to work longer hours and on Saturdays, but who are ABLE to work longer hours and on Saturdays. Teachers with families simply can't do this. They have to go home, fix dinner, do the dishes, walk the dog, and help with their kids' homework.

Moreover, the "success" of KIPP is tarnished when you consider where the students come from. Interviews with KIPP teachers indicate that they refer mostly already high-achieving students to KIPP who come from intact families and whose parents are unusually involved in the school (Carnoy, M., Jacobsen, R., Mishel, L., & Rothstein, R. (2005). The charter school dust-up: Examining evidence on enrollment and achievement. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute and New York: Teachers College Press., p. 58).

So again - a TOTALLY remarkable, unique, unreproducible model is held up as the hope for all.

To achieve the tipping point, we have to trash the logic that underlies the "Poverty Is No Excuse" crap. Certainly some kids can pull themselves up out of the inner-city despite the tremendous odds. Certainly some great schools have formed and will continue to form in poor neighborhoods and attract motivated teachers, students, and parents to work together to improve the educational outcomes of poor kids. KIPP is a good example of this. But the dozens of examples of personal success pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of personal failures. The 45 KIPP schools make up a tiny fraction of the thousands and thousands of schools where children are ground up and spat out. So why do so many poor kids fail? Why are so many poor children chewed up and spat out?

Clearly, kids can't wait for us adults to figure things out. We obviously need to craft both short and long-term stategies. TFA, KIPP, etc. are short-term strategies. We have to get at the source of the problem if we are serious about leaving no child behind.

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