Mike the Mad Biologist

Joe Nocera knocked it out of the park yesterday, in his column about education:

[NYC Principal] González comes across as a skeptic, wary of the enthusiasm for, as the article puts it, “all of the educational experimentation” that took place on Klein’s watch. At its core, the reform movement believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance, so that’s all the reformers focus on. But it takes a lot more than that. Which is where Saquan comes in. His part of the story represents difficult truths that the reform movement has yet to face squarely — and needs to.

Saquan lands at M.S. 223 because his family has been placed in a nearby homeless shelter. (His mother fled Brooklyn out of fear that another son was in danger of being killed.) At first, he is so disruptive that a teacher, Emily Dodd, thinks he might have a mental disability. But working with him one on one, Dodd discovers that Saquan is, to the contrary, unusually intelligent — “brilliant” even.

From that point on, Dodd does everything a school reformer could hope for. She sends him text messages in the mornings, urging him to come to school. She gives him special help. She encourages him at every turn. For awhile, it seems to take.

Meanwhile, other forces are pushing him in another direction. His mother, who works nights and barely has time to see her son, comes across as indifferent to his schooling. Though she manages to move the family back to Brooklyn, the move means that Saquan has an hour-and-a-half commute to M.S. 223. As his grades and attendance slip, Dodd offers to tutor him. To no avail: He finally decides it isn’t worth the effort, and transfers to a school in Brooklyn.

The point is obvious, or at least it should be: Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles Saquan faces when he is not in school. Nor is he unusual. Mahler recounts how M.S. 223 gives away goodie bags to lure parents to parent association meetings, yet barely a dozen show up. He reports that during the summer, some students fall back a full year in reading comprehension — because they don’t read at home.

Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute lists dozens of reasons why this is so, from the more frequent illness and stress poor students suffer, to the fact that they don’t hear the large vocabularies that middle-class children hear at home.

Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant.

As I’ve mentioned many times, even if we accept the potentially flawed methods for evaluating teachers (which I don’t), teachers, according to ‘reform’ supporters, account for about twenty percent of a student’s performance, maximum. That leaves a lot of other things that have to be done to help poor children achieve–that is, we need to ameliorate the effects of poverty*.

Which is why I was so disappointed by John McWhorter’s criticism of the Century Foundation’s program to study the effects of sending poor children to affluent schools:

Herbert’s demonstration piece was a study by the Century Foundation showing that poor black kids from housing projects in Montgomery County, Maryland performed better after spending their elementary school years in better-funded school districts. But the study itself puts into question Herbert’s implication that the problem is merely one of a heartless America refusing to consider a solution that has become “a political no-no” (i.e. touching a third rail of NIMBY-infused racism). These students came out of sixth grade having made a mere one-third’s difference in the black-white reading gap. This is the kind of “years of evidence” that makes the argument for integration such a supposedly open-and-shut case?

So what McWhorter is saying is that the incredibly easy intervention of putting poor kids on schoolbuses for an additional period of time–doesn’t require changing contracts or curricula–by itself closes a third of the gap. That’s a pretty good strategy! Easy to implement! And school buses are a relatively proven technology.

The brutal reality is that, as Nocera points out, the Unlovely Poor bring a lot of baggage into the classroom. We have to deal with that–and we can. But much of that has to happen outside of schools–Bill Cala, former interim school superintendent for Rochester, NY:

Let’s go back to those root causes of failure in school.

What is being done to address these issues?

What is our city leadership doing about the health issues facing children?

What is our city leadership doing about teen pregnancy?

What is our city leadership doing about the child abuse epidemic?

What is our city leadership doing about the immigrant population who cannot speak English?

What is our city leadership doing about the explosion of children in the mental health system?

None of these issues have anything to do with school governance!

What have been forwarded as solutions under mayoral control?

Neighborhood schools

Zero Tolerance – Test, Punish, and Push Out – Advancement Project

Recreation centers such as the Ryan Center

Schools open longer hours

Is there one idea in this plan that addresses the dire needs of children and families?

Is there one idea in this plan about how children learn and need to be taught?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

My vision for Rochester is for us as a community to think about rescuing our children. Saving our children will rescue the Rochester city schools. This cannot be done without putting children at the center of our efforts. The RCSD cannot do this alone. This absolutely must be an effort of everyone in the community.

What do WE do for the child who is sexually abused at 2 years old?

What do WE do for the child whose father is repeatedly arrested and jailed for selling cocaine?

What do WE do for the child whose family is repeatedly reported to Child Protective Services?

This is the biography of one of our “dropouts” who is accused of murder. Can we understand why such a child would drop out?

Can the RCSD stop this madness alone? I think not.

As I’ve noted before, it is poverty-riddled schools in the U.S. that are performing poorly. That might just have something to do with poverty.

*Why everyone thinks accurately evaluating teachers is easier (never mind possible) than addressing and ameliorating poverty escapes me. And we should be doing that anyway.

Comments

  1. #1 harrync
    April 27, 2011

    For many years Wake County, NC [Raleigh, etc.] had an extensive busing for economic integration program that may have played a large part in making it one of the best districts in the state. Last fall a “Tea Party” slate was voted in who are ending the busing program. It will be an interesting experiment to check back in a couple of years and see how well the district test scores hold up under the new regime. [Of course, might not be so interesting if you are one of those low income students who can no longer attend a middle class school.]

  2. #2 Mokele
    April 28, 2011

    This makes me think of another issue you touch on repeatedly – the supposed inferiority of US schools to those in other industrialized countries (particularly Europe), as seen in comparisons of test scores. As you’ve noted, the best US school perform on-par or better than European schools, and that the low performing schools/students are typically impoverished.

    So what is Europe doing that we aren’t to help impoverished students?

    Is it that broad social safety nets ameliorate poverty and its negative effects as a whole? Are there specific, education-oriented steps that are taken to reduce the effect of poverty on student performance?

    Essentially, is there any policy we can pick up from Europe and implement here to at least mitigate the GOP’s War On Poor People?

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