Try this exercise. This fall, about 1 million very poor children will enroll in kindergarten in the United States. The vast majority of them will live in single-parent families headed by women in their late teens or early twenties. Most of their mothers will have dropped out of high school; most of their fathers are nowhere to be seen. Most live in urban or rural communities hit hard by the recession, places where unemployment, addiction, and violence are all too commonplace.
Still, not everything is bleak. Almost all of these children participated in some form of pre-school program, though the quality and effectiveness varied dramatically. Many were in Head Start; others in church-based or community-based programs. They generally have access to basic health-care and, thanks to food stamps, basic nutrition.
Now, try to “see like a state” and play policymaker. When designing a school accountability system, what should its objectives be with respect to these 1 million tykes? On one extreme, you might expect them all to be catapulted into the middle class between the ages of five and twenty-two. First, the K-12 system should prepare them for the rigors of a four-year-college experience, and then higher education should get them across the finish line and into the Promised Land. No excuses!
On the other extreme, you might merely expect them to do no worse than their own mothers did. You don’t want to see the graduation rate go down, or test scores fall, or teen pregnancy rates climb. But you accept that, as long as poverty remains entrenched, a flat line on student outcomes is all we can expect.
I would bet that your own views fall somewhere in between. You acknowledge — privately at least — that it’s unrealistic to expect all kids growing up in poverty to be able to “beat the odds” and graduate from college. (That’s why they’re called “odds.”) You recognize that, for most middle-class families, the path from poverty to prosperity has been a multi-generational journey. (And don’t overlook how many middle-class kids don’t exactly graduate from college!)You get the point. First, note that Petrilli's "seeing like the state" offers a myopic view of the status quo state, one in which food stamps, basic health care, and some kind of preschool make up the entire score on the human welfare test, despite the fact that 1 in 4 children will continue to suffer the ravages of living in poverty without eye care, dental care, decent housing, clothing, or nutritional care beyond mere subsistence levels. The "basic needs" status quo policy that seems just fine with the privileged Petrilli is the same one that allows kids like Daemonte Driver to die of a brain infection when his mom could not afford to take him to the dentist, or the same human welfare situation that allows homeless children in motel rooms to lose sleep at night because they can't make their stomachs stop growling.
But you also believe in the promise of social mobility, and can point to examples of schools—even mediocre ones—that have helped (at least) some kids escape the ghetto or the barrio or the reservation. To accept the status quo is to accept perpetual injustice and inequality.
So let’s get specific. Assuming that these 1 million kids remain poor over the next twelve years, what outcomes would indicate “success” for education reform? Right now the high school graduation rate in poor districts hovers around 50 percent. What if we moved it to 60 percent — without lowering graduation standards? Right now the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading proficiency rate for the most disadvantaged twelfth graders (those whose parents dropped out of high school) is 17 percent. What if we moved that to 25 percent? The same rate for math is 8 percent. What if we moved that to 15 percent?. . . .
In light of such unaltered inhumane realities, Petrilli and his numb-noggined pals at Fordham continue to focus on more band-aids for the cancer. If you are going to "see like the state," Mike, in order to solve the educaction problem, your state has to see poor people, and then do something for them after it sees them, rather than idiotically adjust your test score proficiency expectations, all the while pretending that the socioeconomic killing fields can continue to operate unaltered, even as your test scores creep up.
We need a new War on Poverty that links health, education, jobs, housing, race relations, and transportation--rather than diverting attention in novel ways by lowering our frigging test targets so we may be viewed as "realistic" and responsible education policy people? Good God, man--are you truly as out of touch as you seem? And what is wrong with Valerie Strauss, that she might label this jackass "realistic?"