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

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Telling the Truth About Education Myths

In Education Myths, an extraordinarily sketchy book from Jay “I Never Met a Voucher I Didn’t Like” Greene, the fruits of this Manhattan Institute shill’s research labor are presented in an ideologically-stacked deck qua attack on public schools. With gems like “the sooner Americans realize that lack of resources is not the real problem in our schools, the sooner we can have a meaningful debate on how to make education more productive” and “the primary obstacle to attracting better teachers isn't simply raising pay,” Greene reveals not merely his ignorance, but also a mean-spirited disdain that more and more conservatives are uncloaking regarding both public schools and people living in poverty. Falling in line with John McWhorter, Greene’s ideological doppelganger at Manhattan Institute, the message for low-income students in America’s public schools is loud and clear: quit your whining . . . or else.

Green writes, “(I)f more money produces better results in schools, we would expect to see significant improvements in test scores during this period. That didn't happen. . . the high school graduation rate hasn't budged. Increased spending did not yield more learning.” (from an essay based on Greene’s 2005 book Education Myths, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.)

Greene – obviously untainted by any exposure to how schools actually operate – believes that certain financial inputs lead directly to educational outputs. How quaint.

Just for fun, let’s apply Greene’s logic to The Adventure in Iraq, Part 2: Dubbya’s Revenge.

If more money produces better results in wars on terror, we would expect to see significant improvements in global security during this period. That didn't happen. . . the cause for freedom hasn't budged. Increased spending did not yield more safety.

See, it’s a bit more complicated than Greene makes out. Isolating single variables for schools – expenditure on students on a per pupil basis – fails for the same reason that isolating single variables for wars on terror fails: it fails to take into consideration the many factors that simultaneously contribute to success or failure – of schools or wars. We all grant the President room to say that despite some bumps on the road, the war in Iraq is going well and that all we need to do is keep spending $2 billion per week and everything will be hunky-dory. Yet saying that public education – despite some bumps on the road – is going well and that all we need to do is spend more money and everything will be hunky-dory is like saying these days that the moon is made of cheese and all we have to do is figure out how to put it on crackers.

Most people understand that simply dumping boatloads of cash into Iraq is not going to bring peace and stability. Sure, it will help. But lasting, substantive peace will only be achieved when other factors are attended to.

Same with schools: simply dumping boatloads of cash into public schools, especially inner-city schools with large populations of low-income children, is not going to bring improved learning outcomes. Sure, it will help. But lasting, substantive improvements will only be achieved when other factors are attended to.

But while most people accept this logic with Iraq, it seems that fewer and fewer get it with our neediest public schools.

So let’s do this: let’s take Greene’s and other conservatives’ advice about public schools and apply it to Iraq. What would that look like?
  1. spend less on Iraq – what evidence do we have to show that more money is helping? Let’s face it: throwing more money at counter-insurgents is not the answer.
  2. hold Iraqis accountable for their results – how do we know that Iraqis are doing what is best for their citizens with the money they’ve been given? The fact is, we don’t. So let’s create something called AIP – Adequate Iraqi Progress. We’ll create standardized tests that will hold the Iraqis’ feet to the fire and force them to improve their country. Let’s face it: the Iraqi citizens will do nothing to improve their country unless they are given a push.
  3. indiscriminate, unrelenting, random violence and terror is no excuse – Iraqis frequently cite social problems like mass killings, improvised explosive devices, bombed buildings, and ineffective police protection as excuses for their own poor progress towards freedom and democracy. They claim the existence of these challenges means democracy is doomed to fail. Some seem to think Iraqi failure is inherent in the face of a violent occupation. If the advocates of this argument were merely cautioning us to be mindful of difficulties like bombs and murder, or exhorting us to try to alleviate these problems, no one could disagree with them. But instead, they use these problems as an excuse to oppose Iraqi reforms. If Iraqis perform poorly in their path towards freedom, they argue, it's because of indiscriminate, unrelenting, random violence and terror. No national reform can ever make a difference. Nations who start out lagging under these conditions must always lag. Social problems are forever more powerful than anything a reformer like George W. Bush may do. This argument that nations are helpless in the face of indiscriminate, unrelenting, random violence and terror is not supported by hard evidence. It is a myth. The truth is that certain nations do a strikingly better job than others at overcoming challenges in the culture.
I don’t know of anyone who has said this, written this, or argued this, chiefly because it’s just plain stupid. But it’s also just plain not true, as in “It’s a lie.” This is called a “straw man” argument.

But this is precisely what Greene does. He sets up the opposition as a bunch of racist, pessimistic dolts who think that nothing can be done to help children and families who live in poverty. Of course, lots can be done. But doing it is an entirely different matter.

Certainly teacher quality, poorly-run schools, and badly-managed school districts are part of the problem. But only part. NCLB focuses exclusively on school reform. It overlooks other sources that contribute as much if not more to the achievement gap.

In order to accomplish substantive school-based reform, we need to focus on the factors that most contribute to the reasons why children and schools struggle in the first place. For example, do children struggle to read because they are not as phonemically aware as they need to be, or is something more substantive involved? If you ask the Bush administration, they will tell you – through their Reading First initiative – that the only reason that children cannot read is because they are not properly trained to decode words into phonemes. But others argue that kids might have a hard time reading if they have a toothache, have not had breakfast, or cannot see properly. But these latter ailments go undiagnosed and untreated because the “scientifically-based” recommendations of the National Reading Panel have nothing to say about them.

One basic yet powerful reform is class size reduction: make classes smaller, especially in urban school districts, and watch what happens.

Of course, making classes smaller means creating a lot more classes. More classes means more buildings. And more buildings means more teachers. More classes, buildings, and teachers means a lot more money. Quite a lot more.

We can also commit as a nation to improving the quality of teacher preparation and dedicate the funds necessary to provide on-going, high-quality professional development to people charged with shaping the future of our country, i.e., teaching our children.

This will cost a lot more money, too. Quite a lot more. Richard Rothstein, in his book Class and Schools, estimates it will cost somewhere around $156 billion.

But this is not a money issue. This is a political will issue. Love him or hate him, George W. Bush summoned the political will to invade Iraq and commit more than two billion dollars per week to its care and feeding . . . with no end in sight. On occasion, objections are raised to this new overseas adventure. But by and large, we do not say, “This costs too much.” The reason? Because it is believed to be vital to our national security. And so we spend whatever it takes to get it done.

But for the cost of a year and a half in Iraq, we can create smaller classes, we can train and support teachers, and we can take substantive steps towards closing the educational achievement gap.

And why would we do this? Because it is vital to our national security to do so. Indeed, nothing could be more vital to our national security than to ensure not only that our future will be prosperous, but that we will have a future at all.

We need to counter the current rationale for public education -- to "compete in the global marketplace" -- with a different emphasis on national security: citizens that do not understand where we came from cannot shape where we are going. Citizens that do not understand how laws are made cannot participate in their creation or their transformation. What the business community wants and needs are innovative, energetic entrepreneurs who can identify problems and come up with solutions, people who can work together, communicate effectively, write clearly, and argue persuasively. These are the kinds of people that will contribute to this country's -- and this planet's -- well-being. Without these people, our country and our world is in jeopardy.

But the kinds of students that are being created today are test-taking drones, not the kinds of people we want to be running the world in the very near future. Even affluent kids are subject to these dumbing-down forces as NCLB starts to wrap its tentacles around suburban public schools.

So the Bush administration can talk all it wants to about its educational priorities, about how much it wants to leave no child behind, and the need to stay competitive in the global marketplace by improving math and science education. But as long as the federal government contributes a paltry 10% to the education of America's children, such talk is cheap.

At the heart of the great debate about poverty between conservatives and progressives is the very simple yet very powerful disagreement that people are either (a) completely in charge of themselves or (b) they are completely controlled by forces outside of their control. I think most people, when asked to reflect, would conclude that it's a little of both. In fact, I think most politicians would even argue that it's both. And yet, when it comes to formulating public policy, these sensible people line up and start shouting ideological one-liners at each other. Because we have a conservative political machine in place, we are getting one side of the argument more than we are getting the other (when and if we do get it at all). Hurricane Katrina raised the issue again and gave Democrats a chance to tell their story about poverty, but they blew it.

I believe that there is a way to talk about educational reform that does not devolve into ideology when it comes time to discuss the root problem of education, i.e, poverty. Policies need to be formulated that recognize that -- paradoxically -- individuals are both totally responsible for themselves and totally shaped by their environments. However, it's important to point out that policies cannot be formulated that make people become more responsible for themselves. But it's also important to point out that policies HAVE been formulated that punish people -- mostly poor people -- for NOT being responsible for themselves. This, for me, is a moral and ethical dilemma, but it's also a practical dilemma: does punishing people for being "irresponsible" work? Is it effective? Does it achieve what it sets out to achieve, i.e., does punishing "irresponsible" people make them become more responsible? For me, the answer is no, it doesn't.

So if it doesn't work, then why do we do it? And what, if anything, can work? Here's my Top 10 List:
  1. smaller class sizes at every level
  2. comprehensive social services so no child has to go without food, shelter, medicine, and dental care
  3. adequate prenatal care and postnatal follow-up so children reach school age healthy
  4. free, high-quality, universal pre-K that is developmentally appropriate
  5. parent education for young parents
  6. comprehensive job training and placement for parents at a real living wage
  7. universal healthcare coverage for all Americans, especially the poor and "working poor"
  8. free, high-quality onsite child-care or free transportation to and from child-care facilities to make it possible for parents to work and raise children
  9. high-quality training and ongoing professional development for elementary teachers in reading instruction (not drill-and-kill phonics)
  10. high-quality training and ongoing professional development for all teachers in classroom-based formative assessment
All of these proposals speak to the most important environmental factors that shape success and failure in our country, not just in school, but in life overall. Then comes what I call my leap of faith. Ready? I take it as a matter of faith that, if these environmental factors were addressed and that material suffering were ameloriated, people would be motivated to take responsibility for their lives. How do I know this? I don't. But it occurs to me that if people live in misery, they themselves will be miserable. It's hard to want to be responsible for what you are told is your own self-induced, self-created misery. But if people live with their basic needs met, there's a greater likelihood that people will not only be able to take responsibility for their lives, but they'll also want to.

Extraordinarily, Greene has no experience whatsoever as a teacher in a public school, much less a low-income public school in an inner-city neighborhood. But this does not prevent him from launching his distorted reading of other people’s research and other people’s experience and presenting it as the truth, a broadside aimed at . . . doing what? Helping poor kids? Improving public education?

If so, then who – exactly – benefits from this kind of idiocy that passes for analysis? What do we gain by beating up on poor people? Why not do everything we can to close the achievement gap, not take pot shots at low-income children and families?

1 comment:

  1. It's these over-generalizations that really are hurting our public schools.
    What we need is "meaningful funding."