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

Monday, February 12, 2007

Left Behind


Mary-Ellen Deily (Moderator):
Thank you for joining us for today’s live chat with Susan Eaton, the author of The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial. This is the first in what we hope will be a monthly discussion of books of interest to the education community. The Children in Room E4 considers issues of equity and segregation in the Hartford, Conn., schools up close and reports on the long-running school equity lawsuit, Sheff v. O’Neill.

Question from Patricia Daboh, Teacher, Sumter School District 17:
Ms. Eaton, what prompted you to write "The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial?

Susan Eaton:
Hello Patricia -- Well, I was a young reporter in Connecticut in 1989, the year the Sheff case was filed. I remember coming across a copy of the complaint and being transfixed by its intellectual underpinnings and its argument -- that racial segregation and concentrated poverty overwhelm schools to the point that they hamper educators' abilities to deliver an equal educational opportunity. I had already spent 3 years reporting in an extremely segregated school district -- Holyoke, Massachusetts -- and the Sheff argument seemed to hit at the core of the problem. But more than that, the aspiration at the center of the Sheff case -- that in the United States of America, surely we can do better -- surely we can and should provide all children an equal chance in life, moved me emotionally. Sheff was, to me, and to the civil rights lawyers who constructed it, the Brown v. Board of Education of my generation. Once I got to Hartford, the children I met in Room E4 brought two things to life 1) the legacy of segregation, discrimination and the current day effects of racial and economic isolation and 2) the childrens' vast potential that's going to waste. I originally thought that this book would take me a year to write, but I discovered that in order to tell it properly and fully, it would take a lot longer. I ended up spending 5 years researching and writing this book. I believe it was time well spent. Susan

Question from O. Thompson, Parent:
I think one of the main things that contribute to this disparity is this incomprehensible educational system that hinges on generating funding from property taxes. Is there anything being done to try to change this? Why isn't education funded at the federal level? I'm really tired of the endless fundraisers that our children are made to get so excited about, so the school can raise money for needed supplies.

Susan Eaton:
Hi. I agree with you. However, many states have been sued and forced to equalize their funding schemes. There's been mixed success, with some legislatures dragging their feet, others simply not complying. I think it's important to focus on funding disparities and to ensure, especially that high-poverty schools get the dollars they need to provide a decent education. But focusing on money alone obscures other inequalities -- specifically the harm caused by concentrated poverty itself. I address this in my book, The Children In Room E4 and argue that while more money is likely necessary, it's not sufficient to provide true equal educational opportunity. There's actually far more social science evidence about the benefits of predominantly middle class schools than there is about the benefits of increased funding.

Question from Hayes Mizell, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Naitonal Staff Development Council:
I'm curious about what you observed regarding teachers' professional development in the Hartford school. To what extent was it present? How would you assess its quality? How did teachers respond to it? How could it have had a greater impact on teacher performance?

Susan Eaton:
Hello Mr. Mizell, Thanks for writing. Sadly, the professional development I observed during my time in Hartford consisted mainly of helping teachers better align the curriculum with the state's standardized tests. Also, there were workshops offered to help teachers better align the pre-packaged reading program, Success For All, with the skills tested on the state exams. Also, there was training available that taught teachers how to use the SFA program. However, I did not conduct a systematic assessment of teacher training programs or PD programs while I was in the district. Therefore, I really can't judge the quality of those programs, generally. I can say, though, that the district employed so many incredibly dedicated, talented educators. At least during the years that I was there, unfortunately, these educators couldn't have made use of high-quality PD programs because of the exclusive emphasis on preparing students for the state test.

Question from Bob Frangione, Educator:
What are some of the most difficult challenges to equalizing education for all children?

Susan Eaton:
Hello Bob - Two challenges come to mind. One, getting suburban-dominated state legislatures to recognize the moral imperative to ensure all children receive an equal educational opportunity. Also, when we think about inequality, our minds usually gravitate to financial inequities created in part by the property tax system. While I strongly believe -- based on years upon years of observation and study -- that providing more money to high-poverty schools is necessary, it is not sufficient. No matter how much money we provide, high poverty schools will still be overburdened and carry a disproportionate share of the educational challenges in a region. It seems to me, then, that educational equality is hampered by this condition. ALso, the vast inequalities that exist outside of school -- disparities in health outcomes, in decent housing, in neighborhood safety, even neighborhood pollution that leads to childhood illness -- weigh on schools that enroll disproportionate numbers of children from lower income families. There's clear social science agreement about the benefits of desegregated schooling and too, the benefits of providing children access to well-functioning, predominantly middle class schools.

Question from S.Tegano, Consultant:
Hello Dr.Eaton, Focusing on the role of the principal, what would you suggest administration preparation programs include to address the vast needs of this type of school, student, faculty?

Susan Eaton:
Hello, In my experience in and out of all types of schools over 2 decades, I think the principal is vitally important in setting the tone and direction of a school. The best principals are dedicated and passionate and treat their teachers as trusted professionals. This is much more difficult to do, of course, in an urban, high-poverty school where so many of the teachers are inexperienced. In a high-poverty school, it seems to me that the good principals I've known have a rapport with the students, let the students know that they care and will be fair with them and work to ensure that their more experienced teachers are able to mentor the less experienced teachers. The principal I write about in my book, The Children In Room E4, wasn't one to brag. However, the one thing he did admit to doing well was having a good eye in hiring decisions. That is, he felt he had a good instinct for hiring good teachers. -- Susan

Question from Lori Bouza, Wagner Early Learning Center:
Our families have a poverty rate of 75% and we struggle with the decreased value of education is their lives. Have you found a successful way to encourage parents to become more involved and supportive of the school?

Susan Eaton:
Hello Lori -- My book did consider the role of parents to some extent. And while I've been in a lot of urban schools that reached out to parents effectively and brought them into the community in positive ways, the general trend is far less involvement than you'd see in middle class districts. However, I think we need to be careful, here, about blaming parents for the lack of involvement. Often times, parents in urban communities I've been in, work two, sometimes three jobs to support their families. Single parenting leaves so many mothers and grandmothers exhausted at the end of the day. My experience in Hartford leads me to the conclusion that while parents are incredibly important in the educational process and can contribute mightily to a student's success, we have to remember that the parents can do little about the larger social environment, characterized by immense poverty, isolation and disenfranchisement, which has been decades in the making. A lot of times I've noticed that parents who administrators assume are uninvolved, actually are quite involved at home, working with their children and encouraging them in private ways we never see.

Question from Cynthia Pugh-Carter, Student of Education, Grand Canyon University:
What would your response be to a community whose parents want to send their children to a school where the quality of education is obviously better but the parents lack the resources (financial, transportation) to take advantage of "school choice"?

Susan Eaton:
Hello Cynthia -- I like your question. Ideally, the government would not only pass legislation for public school (as opposed to private school...) choice, but, in order to level the playing field, would also provide transportation for that child to attend another school outside of his or her district. When we talk about school choice in this country, it's usually referring (strangely) to private school choice. However, there's a good argument to be made for public school choice. In the No Child Left Behind Act there is a provision for children who are in so-called failing schools to transfer to another school. But that allows for choice only within ones current school district. In many urban districts, that means only that children will be allowed to transfer to another high-poverty, segregated, overwhelmed school. I think it makes sense to allow students to transfer outside their district. However, it's not enough to merely provide the option. Parents need information and assistance in making the switch in addition to adequate transportation.

Question from Jill Jacobs Cohen, Doctoral Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Education:
Given that the political climate is so hostile towards the maintenance of race-sensitive policies, do you believe those interested in desegregation should focus our attention on pushing for programs that use economic criteria for student placement, as Kahlenberg suggests?

Susan Eaton:
Hi Jill-- Excellent question. You are at my alma mater! I think that, unfortunately, we do need to move in the direction of ensuring that all children have access to middle class schools. However, it still makes sense for our society and our democracy to maintain models of desegregated schooling and to ensure that those schools remain desegregated, high-functioning and accessible. As Kahlenberg notes, there is a social science consensus that children from lower-poverty backgrounds are likely to achieve at higher levels in middle-class schools. Based on past research, though, I don't think that this policy will achieve desegregation without conscious attention. However, while I think you are right about the political climate, in my experience, many parents and educators at the local level still very strongly support desegregation. For example, in Connecticut, where my book is set, several thousand urban and suburban parents sit on waiting lists for a handful of desegregated, high quality schools. -- Susan

Question from Lee R. McMurrin,Retired Supt.,Milwaukee Public Schools:
Would a Metropolitan School District bringing the rich and the poor together provide the political motivation to bring all schools up to the highest standards of equity of resourses and academic acheivement.

Susan Eaton:
Hello Lee -- Well, I don't think there are any magical solutions out there. However, I do think that a district that contains a mix of students from varying backgrounds (rather than just the poor) is more likely to win political favor and attention for a variety of reasons. Of course the poor are always vulnerable for educational neglect in every district. But an overwhelmed, high-poverty district is especially vulnerable to educational neglect.

Question from Ray Phelps North Hardin High School Racliff,Ky.:
There is a great disparity between rich/poor; black/white; urban/suburban;county/county/state/state. Local boards strive to provide the same dollar investment, per student, no matter the students situation/need. Most boards think this way. Equitable is not equal-money amount or time on task. There is not a one size fits all-same amount of money spent/same amount of time spent on content for all students. Do you think we are asking for students to fail having this type mindset?

Susan Eaton:
Hello Ray, I agree that we can't measure equity by dollars spent on time spent on task. Achieving true equality is a far more complex matter. Some states consider the challenges of a particular community (for example poverty level) and apportion dollars and other resources based on that need. I think that's far fairer and while high-poverty schools surely need more money and attention than their middle-class counterparts, I think, too, that creating predominantly middle-class schools for all children would be the more successful course. Thanks. Susan

Question from Chaney Williams-Ledet, Ed.D. Administor Houston,Texas:
How does this inequitable situation compare with the disparities that existed for African-Americans over 56 years ago (e.g Brown v Board of Education)?

Susan Eaton:
Hi Chaney -- Well, 56 years ago blacks in the South were required BY LAW to attend segregated schools that were inferior on every measure. After enforcement of Brown, the south became (and remains) our most integrated region. Our most segregated region now is the Northeast. Segregation outside the South, in most cases, was created by a complex mix/tangle of forces. But most of it, at least in the regions I've researched and written about, is a result of housing segregation borne from racial discrimination. African Americans have made substantial progress in the last half century. However, the learning gaps between white and black, particularly, remain large.

Question from Steve Kirkpatrick, Teacher, Monroe Co. High:
Mrs. Eaton, through all of your research on this subject what could you tell us as teachers how we can help the situation that some kids have no control over? Ex. race, welfare

Susan Eaton:
Hello Steve -- This is a tough question and I'm not sure exactly what you are asking. I hope my answer suffices. I think it's really important that policymakers, citizens and others construct a realistic view of teachers. Teachers do have the power to make huge differences in students' lives. There is no question about that. However, I think it's a shame that we focus so much on the "miracle" teacher who helped inner city kids "overcome the odds" so to speak. I'm not doubting that those teachers are out there. It's just that often times, we focus on the sentimental, happy, miracle stories to the point that we obscure the more typical story in which a teacher is overwhelmed by social problems in his or her classroom and is forced to teach dull material culled from old standardized tests. The best teachers I've seen develop personal relationships with children -- let the children know that they understand or want to understand them, set clear expectations (for performance and behavior) and remain consistent. The teacher I profiled in my book, The Children In Room E4, used the term "love, learning and limits..." She constructed a beautiful, healthy and productive classroom community by staying true to these values, getting to know each child well and investing herself in that child's success. A teacher can't do much about poverty and discrimination in the larger society. But from what I've seen, it means a lot to kids when a teacher acknowledges what his or students are up against instead of just repeating meaningless platitudes such as "Believe in yourself" and "You can do it." Better to do what Ms. Luddy, the teacher I write about does, which is to let the kids talk about the mayhem that characterizes their lives, the culture of the street, the murder that happened the night before rather than pretend it's all irrelevant. -- Susan

Question from Michael Baker:
Should NCLB be dismantled? I am a 27 year veteran teacher with National Board Certification and find NCLB to be a hindrance and invasion of my academic freedom.

Susan Eaton:
Hi Michael -- Well, this is a tough question for me. Generally, I think the impulse toward punishments and sanctions for "failing" schools is a negative one. This is because it blames schools for what are in large part social problems and vast inequities that are not being tended to. However, the one good thing that NCLB does, in my opinion, is that it does protect against extreme educational neglect. What I mean is that poor children in impoverished schools are our most vulnerable students and the one most likely to suffer from inexperienced teachers and the like. Because the challenges in these institutions are so overwhelming, administrators have far less time and resources to spend on monitoriing whether or not teachers and others are doing their job by kids. Therefore, NCLB does require that children get something from someone at least some of the time. Also, it controls for inexperienced teachers which predominate in urban schools and gives them a clear instruction about what to teach and when. THAT SAID, NCLB is NOT a route to equal educational opportunity. It is being touted as a grand reform, but it actually lacks substance and focuses only on testing and punishments, as you know. What's worse -- while it might control for bad or inexperienced teachers, it sacrifices the excellent, creative teachers who feel stifled by the standardized testing requirements. It's a Catch-22. My reading of the data shows NCLB has made absolutely no meaningful progress on improving the education of children of color in the nation. Thanks for writing -- Susan

Question from Lucia Villarreal, kinder teacher, Starlight Elementary School, Watsonville, California:
Ours school is in year 5 of School Improvement and will be "taken over" or "shut down" next year. What can you tell me about the edubuisness/edupreneurs that are taking over these "failing" schools? On an edupreneur site I found this: (http://www.ccsindia.org/edupreneurs.asp): "We believe that education should be granted the status of an industry and access to credit for opening schools should be made simpler. To this end, we also envisage the setting up of a body that would provide mentoring services to enthusiastic educational entrepreneurs or edupreneurs. Such a body can also develop on the lines of a venture capital fund that would provide the edupreneurs with funds to open schools and other educational institutions. We seek to empower educational entrepreneurs to fulfill their passion for the cause of education." I am very concerned about what education will look like under this "venture capitalist" model. Should we not fear for the future of our student's minds and our democracy?

Susan Eaton:
Hello Lucia -- Yes. Be afraid. Be very afraid. I don't know why people things the private sector should be the one to take over education for the poor. It's not as if private industry has ever been good to the poor. In Hartford, where my book was set, the public set their hopes on private management, only for everything to fall apart shortly thereafter just as has happened in many places across the nation. - Susan

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