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

Friday, November 07, 2008

Arizona Reformers Conclude Harder Tests Will Solve Poverty

Whether education policymakers are inspired by delusion or privilege or racism, or any combo thereof, it doesn't make much difference in the ensuing damage to poor children at the receiving end of their policies. We should, but don't, know by now that attempting again and again the tried and untrue, while racing headlong down the path of least resistance, only delays the real changes that are sorely needed to make any significant difference in reducing the learning gaps between poor and non-poor.

Have a look at this clip from today's Arizona Republic to see the sort of policy thought disorder that I'm talking about, here in full bloom:
. . . .National exams still show Arizona's eighth-graders from low-income families lag in reading and math skills compared with low-income children in most other states.

About half of Arizona's 1 million K-12 students are considered low income. Most live in lower-income neighborhoods and attend the same schools.

But about 20 percent of the state's low-income students go to schools where most children come from high-income families, state data showed.

Their academic progress is starkly higher.

Over the past three years, when these low- income children reached third grade, they passed the AIMS exam at a rate 10 percentage points higher than lower-income children in more typical and poorer Arizona schools. The students held that lead through high school.

That difference has recently led to big changes in low-income schools.

Many principals in low-income neighborhood schools across the country are mimicking their wealthier neighbors. They are working to raise the academic expectations for these students among teachers, parents and the entire community.

They are creating more honors and advanced courses and tutoring children so they can succeed in those courses. . . .
Now the utter sadness of this kind of thinking is eclipsed only by its naked stupidity. And yet to believe that poor children only need more demands and harder tests to do well represents a long-standing blindness to the elephant in the room we choose to ignore, particularly among liberals such as Wilkins and Haycock at Ed Trust (and their white male bosses). This kind of crumbling-school-that-can fairytale offers the kind of affordable perfectibility that liberals find least objectionable, a kind of idiot's idealism that leaves its victims zealously unaware of their own foolishness. It is the kind of lazy-brained behavior, too, that conservatives will nod right along with, particularly when it is allowed to blend with their own patented blame-the-victim mentality that is part and parcel of the conservative no-excuses, take-names-and-kick-ass school reform ideology. How do you think we got No Child Left Behind?

Did it ever occur to these Arizona reformers that poor children going to middle class schools might enjoy some other beneficial influences other than getting to share the same tests that kids in the leafy suburbs take? If it did, there is no sign of it.

Could it be that the Arizona case offers a research opportunity to further study the potential benefits of socioeconomic integration? Here is a short clip on the benefits of socioeconomic integration from a 2006 report by Richard Kahlenberg at the New Century Foundation (Download the PDF file here). It could be a real eye-opener for those who believe that harder tests trucked into economically-rotted communities will save the day, or even come close to addressing the achievement chasm:
. . . .The first major objective of racial desegregation plans is to reduce the negative effects of segregation on the academic achievement of students. But the legendary Coleman Report of the 1960s found that after the influence of the family, the socioeconomic status of a school is the single most important determinant of a student’s academic success.21 The basic findings of the report—that all children do better in middle-class schools—have been affirmed again and again in the literature.22 In 2005, for example, University of California professor Russell Rumberger and his colleague Gregory J. Palardy found that a school’s socioeconomic status had as much impact on the achievement growth of high school students as a student’s individual economic status.

Throughout history and throughout time, low-income students typically have performed less well academically than middle-class children, but there is a striking exception: low-income students attending middle-class schools perform better, on average, than middle-class students in high-poverty schools. Scores from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) among fourth graders in math indicate that low-income students in more affluent schools score eight points higher (more than half a grade level) than middle-class students in schools with between 75 and 100 percent of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

Moreover, education research has long suggested that the economic mix of a school matters more than the racial mix in determining the academic achievement of students. The Coleman Report found that the “beneficial effect of a study body with a high proportion of white students comes not from racial composition per se but from the better educational background and higher educational aspirations that are, on the average, found among whites.”25 More recent research confirms this notion.26 Indeed, Harvard professor Gary Orfield, a strong proponent of racial desegregation, notes that “educational research suggests that the basic damage inflicted by segregated education comes not from racial concentration but the concentration of children from poor families.”27 In Wake County, administrators and school board members concluded that to raise academic achievement, a student mix by economic status was crucial. “Really, isn’t it about class?” they said. “It’s really not about their skin color.” . . . .

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