At least a dozen of the posts in this blog have been devoted to either de-bunking David Brooks’ columns or pointing out the paradoxes in his positions. One of the in-house conservative columnists for the NYTimes, Brooks’ columns often take on cultural issues that overlap with public education policy or examine the context of public schools. Today’s column, “Communities of Character“, like many of his essays, supports a broader role for schools that is a direct contradiction to the core values of conservative philosophy in general and today’s Republican party beliefs in particular. Here’s the argument Brooks presents at the outset of his column:
You’d think that schools would naturally nurture deep community bonds. But we live in an era and under a testing regime that emphasizes individual accomplishments, not community cohesion. Even when schools talk about values, they tend to talk about individualistic values, like grit, resilience and executive function, not the empathy, compassion and solidarity that are good for community and the heart.
Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education asked 10,000 middle and high school students if their parents cared more about their personal achievement or whether they were kind. Eighty percent said their parents cared more about achievement — individual over the group.
But there are some schools that nurture achievement precisely by building tight communities.
Brooks then describes two high schools that explicitly emphasize “community values” over individual effort, the Denver School of Science and Technology that convenes morning meetings four days a week to discuss the climate at the school and the Leaders School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn that is based on the philosophy of Outward Bound. It is unlikely that either school could be scaled up and also noteworthy that both are high schools which are largely exempt from the test-and-punish regimen that dominates each grade level in elementary and middle schools.
Here’s what I found maddening: The “testing regime that emphasizes individual accomplishments, not community cohesion” that Brooks laments is an artifact our legislature created and the regime will be continuing under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The schools that emphasize “individualistic values, like grit, resilience and executive function” and downplay “empathy, compassion and solidarity that are good for community and the heart” mirror the mindset of cold-hearted social Darwinists who believe that their success is deserved because they were born into relatively affluent middle class families… and that view is the dominant one of the conservative wing of the Republican party.
If our country believed in values that are “good for the community” we would stop characterizing government programs as “handouts” and view them as a helping hand for our neighbors in need… we would stop thinking of immigrants as latent radicals and see them as brothers and sisters whose lives have been disrupted by war… and we would publicly shame anyone who attempts to divide us into factions that fight against each other based on our race or religious convictions. Instead we think of our most disadvantaged citizens as “takers”, of immigrants as “moochers”, and gather at rallies for candidates like Donald Trump.
When it comes to schools, we would stop spending money on surveillance and door locks and start spending on counseling and community service projects… we would stop the practice of basing student success on individual test results and examine the students ability to relate to others in the classroom… and we would worry less about tax rates and more about the conditions many of our children face in their daily lives.
Ignoring Refugees Contribute to Terrorism Abroad… Ignoring Poverty COULD Lead to Home Grown Terrorism
I’ve been reading and commenting on lots of articles in the NYTimes about the refugee crisis… and I am distressed about the silence on offering ANY help to the refugees where they are currently re-settled. I’ve heard some conservative chatter about the cost for immigration being 12 times higher than the cost of resettlement in a neighboring country… and lots of talk about how many immigrants we should accept from Syria… and lots of talk about spending money on bombs… but there no talk whatsoever on either side of the aisle about how much we should spend to help our allies in the middle east who are absorbing tens of thousands of refugees. If we don’t want the refugees, and Europe doesn’t want the refugees, we should at the very least spend billions of dollars helping the countries that currently house the refugees. If we turn our backs on Middle Eastern families, orphans, and widows fleeing civil wars how can we be surprised that the young men in the Middle East fall prey to the terrorist recruiters?
As I was reading articles and editorials on the refugee crisis, I also read Eduardo Porter’s latest article, “Electing to Ignore the Poorest of the Poor“. In it Porter offers this synopsis of how we are allocating funds today as compared to the past:
All in all, in the early 1980s more than half of government transfers to low-income families went to the very poorest. Thirty years later these families received less than one-third of the government’s help.
This choice, as a society, to target most of our help only to those who can help themselves exhibits a blinkered understanding of what perpetuates the deep, intractable poverty that affects many communities. But it serves a purpose. By believing the poor are not exerting enough effort, we allow ourselves not to care. This permits politicians — and voters — to go normally about their business while 16 million Americans live on $8.60 or less a day.
Later in the article Porter distinguishes “deep poverty”, a persistent condition that affects the 16 million individuals referenced above, from those who are living in poverty because they are employed in low paying jobs:
Deep poverty, according to the scholars who contributed to the journal, is an ecosystem, where bad individual decisions occur within broken environments, where the social glue has come unstuck. Cognitive abilities and character are important at the individual level, but they can’t be cleanly separated from their environment. Indeed, deep poverty has no single, or most important cause — not family, neighborhood, job or education. Plucking at one or the other, alone, won’t do.
“Deprivations come bundled, packaged, and may reinforce each other over time,” said Robert J. Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who is the co-author of an essay in the journal with his doctoral student Kristin L. Perkins. “The implication for policy is that one can’t just think of extracting out individual causes for policy action.”
Porter doesn’t say so directly, but the implication is clear: you cannot fix a systemic problem with a series of uncoordinated, silted, and piecemeal efforts. This implication resonates with me because I wholeheartedly believe that schools cannot solve the problems associated with the learning deficits that are a consequence of poverty: a coordinated effort involving ALL agencies serving children is needed… and such an effort will likely require more spending by local, state and federal taxpayers.
We haven’t spent that money for several years… and one of the disturbing consequences is that we now have 40% of the young men between 16 and 24 unemployed. The women’s unemployment rate is slightly worse. And the rate for African Americans is at least 10% higher. And where to terrorist organizations look for recruits? They seek out disenfranchised young males.
Given our country’s decision to ignore the poorest of the poor I am not surprised to read comments on social media supporting candidates who want to slam the door on immigrants. I am not surprised… but I am disappointed. This is not the country I grew up in. It’s not the country that passed civil rights and anti-poverty legislation, accepted boat people from Cuba, or absorbed thousands of immigrants from Viet Nam after our misadventures there left some of those who supported our efforts in the cold. Those actions warmed my heart and made me feel proud of our country: we helped those in need and accepted responsibility for the consequences of our actions. I want our country to be that way again.
Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday reporting the bad news: according to Education Week the Senate and House are about to pass legislation re-authorizing No Child Left Behind. Though the legislation is called the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act”, the content of the bill sustains the test and punish model that was the basis for both No Child Left Behind and its progeny, Race To The Top. The details are yet to be hammered out, but it appears that the “portability” of Title One funds is dead (for now) and funding for preschool is incorporated but channeled through Health and Human Services— reinforcing the silos as opposed to advocating for some kind of integrated services. The NEA is trying to put a happy spin on this, making a valiant effort to find something to encourage their membership… but the fact is that the worst elements of NCLB are in place. The only difference is that STATES will determine the carrots and sticks instead of the FEDERAL government.
This is sad news… because it likely means another generation of students will be subjected to high stakes testing. It also means another generation of parents will view their child’s schooling through this lens. And even worse, it means those teachers who entered the profession in the last 15 years will never have experienced anything BUT the test-and-punish regimen… and they will soon dominate the profession. The paradigm of teaching that I encountered as a teacher and administrator beginning in 1970 is no longer in existence… except in the most affluent school districts where children on the top end of the standardized testing bell curve scores so high on the tests that teachers are not distracted by them and have the opportunity to teach to the passion of their students and not to the test. Everyone else, and especially the teachers working with children in poverty, is living under the “new” paradigm… which will soon become the dominant one in the minds of students, parents, and teachers who entered the realm of public education since 2002.
David Kirp’s op ed article in today’s NYTimes describes the fruitful efforts of Long Beach CA in creating a seamless PreK through College pipeline, a seamless education system that mirrors the kind of approach I believe can and should be replicated across the country. Instead of fretting over scores on standardized tests, Long Beach students focus on ONE test administered in 11th grade:
Every high school junior takes an early assessment exam, which few California districts require. Those who fare poorly get a rigorous dose of English and math, giving them the skills needed to satisfy the state universities’ admissions requirements. Going to college is increasingly on these students’ minds. Last spring they signed up for more than 10,000 advance placement exams, a two-year increase of more than 41 percent. This year’s graduates garnered $96 million in scholarships, $40 million more than in 2012.
The administration of this test is the last step in a process that begins in Pre-Kindergarten where parents learn that if their child meets the admission standards of Long Beach Community College there will be a seat waiting for them. This offer is reinforced in elementary schools:
All fourth and fifth graders, together with their parents, tour the local college campuses. “Most of our parents never thought college was a possibility for their kids,” the Long Beach school superintendent, Christopher Steinhauser, points out. “But those visits can change their minds.”
Not every child takes advantage of this opportunity. The engagement of parents with defeatist attitudes remains a challenge even in a community that has united being the need for children to be assured an opportunity to succeed in higher education. And many students who do begin community colleges fail to complete their coursework. But as Kirp’s concluding paragraphs indicate, the seamless team approach to education IS making a positive difference:
While there’s work to be done — too few of Long Beach’s high school graduates have the credentials that state universities demand, and the community college’s completion rate is still slightly below the state average — each institution keeps getting better. “What we do is surprisingly simple but amazingly powerful,” Ms. Conoley told me. “We communicate all the time. No turf. No bureaucracies. Just building and evaluating programs with the goal of removing barriers and supporting student success.”
The Long Beach collaboration offers a textbook illustration of what business gurus call “continuous improvement.” The willingness of educators, from pre-K to Ph.D., to shelve their egos and do right by the community makes all the difference.
The top-down test-and-punish reform has not yielded these kinds of outcomes… and yet we persist in using that approach. It’s time to use community based teamwork to demonstrate to disaffected parents and students that it IS possible to create a better life for themselves.
The titled of Lyndsay Layton’s Washington Post article serves as an announcement that Presidential campaigns are about to address issues near and dear to public education policy makers: “Hillary Clinton Wades Into the Internal Democratic Debate Over Public Schools”. Noting that Ms. Clinton has heretofore only talked about relatively non-controversial issues like the expansion of preschool and after school programs and affordable post-secondary education, Layton reported on Ms. Clinton’s response to a question posed at a South Carolina public forum:
At a town hall meeting in South Carolina on Saturday, Clinton was critical of public charter schools, saying “most” intentionally exclude or expel children who are difficult to educate.
“Most charter schools — I don’t want to say every one — but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them,” Clinton said in response to questions at an event hosted by the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus.
By contrast, she said, traditional public schools “thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.”
“I have for many years now, about 30 years, supported the idea of charter schools, but not as a substitute for the public schools but as a supplement for the public schools,” Clinton said.
Predictably, the “reform” crowd– or as Ms. Layton characterized them- “elements within the Democratic Party that support policies such as merit pay, teacher evaluations and charter schools“– was appalled and indignant.
“That is absolutely false,” Jeanne Allen, the founder of the Center for Education Reform, said of Clinton’s claims about charters. “She sounds like an aloof, elite candidate from a bygone era, before ed reform was a reality.”
“There’s no doubt that we’re very troubled and concerned,” said Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform. “We don’t want any sort of slowdown on the Obama legacy of expanding high-quality charter seats, particularly for families of color, many of whom are attending schools that are failing them.”
Jeffries said his organization is hoping that Clinton’s comments are an anomaly.
“Secretary Clinton has a 30-year record of being very supportive of choice and charter schools,” he said. “We’re hopeful that she will act in ways consistent with her record.”
Ms. Layton then recounts Ms. Clinton’s previous positions on public education, which not only included “being very supportive of choice and charter schools” but also being supportive of smaller class sizes, more resources for teachers, and the fact that parents and students had a role in determining the outcomes in schools.
The article concludes with quotes from Ms. Clinton’s spokesperson:
“For decades, Hillary Clinton has been a strong supporter of both public charter schools and an unflinching advocate for traditional public schools, their teachers and their students,” Clinton spokesman Jesse Ferguson said when asked to explain the comments she made Saturday.
Clinton “wants to be sure that public charter schools, like traditional public schools, serve all students and do not discriminate against students with disabilities or behavioral challenges,” Ferguson said. “She wants to be sure that public charter schools are open to all students. As president, she will work to ensure there are pathways for every child to live up to their potential.”
Last week Ms. Clinton opposed the treatment of the high school student in South Carolina who was manhandled by a school resource officer, insisting that schools use disciplinary approaches that provide support for children.
On Saturday, by insisting that charters accept and educate all students who are accepted, Ms. Clinton has taken a position that supports the needs of all children raised in poverty, not just those whose parents are engaged enough and/or have the time to enroll their children in a selective charter.
The next step, and the most important one in my judgment, would be to come out in opposition to the mandatory testing that is a part of Federal law today and the cornerstone of the so called “Obama legacy”. NOW, as Congress deliberates on a bill that continues this practice in the name of “accountability” would be an ideal time for ALL Presidential candidates to state their opposition to testing…. and NOW, with the release of NAEP scores that are in decline she could do so by pointing out what every thoughtful policy maker already knows: the test-and-punish regimen is failing children.
A succession of articles appeared recently on Goldman Sachs’ “success” in preventing large groups of preschool students from requiring special education services through innovative approaches funded by a social impact bond. In a typically insightful post on her Mathbabe blog, Cathy O’Neill explains the design of a social impact bond and how they can be abused to the detriment of those who are presumably helped, by investors, and of science itself.
In the opening paragraphs O’Neill outlines how a social impact bond works:
The idea is that people with money put that money to some “positive” purpose, and if it works out they get their money back with a bonus for a job well done. It’s meant to incentivize socially positive change in the market. Instead of only caring about profit, the reasoning goes, social impact bonds will give rich people and companies a reason to care about healthy communities.
So, for example, New York City issued a social impact bond in 2012 around recidivism for jails. Recidivism, which is the tendency for people to return to prison, has to go down for the bond to pay off. So Goldman Sachs made a bet that they could lower the recidivism rate for certain jails in the NYC area.
Sounds like a good concept on paper… except for a few issues:
- Who defines what constitutes “recidivism”
- Who looks to see if Goldman is investing in other instruments that bet against the success of the bond
- When money is involved, who makes sure the “experiment” involving recidivism is done in a scientifically rigorous fashion?
Later in her post, O’Neill describes the social impact bond “success” touted by Goldman Sachs as evidence that these new instruments can solve thorny educational problems:
Here’s a big red flag on the whole social impact bond parade: Goldman Sachs was caught rigging the definition of success for a social impact bond in Utah. It revolved around a preschool program that was supposed to keep kids out of special ed. Again, it was hailed by the Utah Governor as “a model for a new way of financing public projects.” But when enormous success was claimed, it seemed like the books had been cooked.
Basically, Goldman Sachs got paid back, and rewarded, if enough kids who were expected to go into special ed actually didn’t. But the problems started with how find the kids “expected to go into special ed.”
Namely, they administered a test known as the PPVT, and if the kid got a score lower than 70, they were deemed “headed to special ed.” But the test was administered in English, when up to half of the preschoolers didn’t speak English at home. And also, the PPVT was never meant to measure kids for special ed needs in the first place. In fact, it’s a vocabulary test.
Unsurprisingly, many of the non-English speaking children did NOT require special education services when they got older because… they learned how to speak English more proficiently. That is, they didn’t require special education services later because they never should have been identified as likely candidates for those services to begin with!
MAYBE these social impact bonds would be a good idea if someone in the Utah State Department of Education was asked to determine the method for predicting future special needs children… but my hunch is that the Governor of Utah wanted to see this method work to “prove” that financial incentives can leverage solutions to difficult social problems and so avoided seeking advice from social scientists on the best means of screening for potential special needs students.
And here’s my other hunch: IF someone in the Utah State Department of Education determined the method for predicting future special needs children the funds needed to solve the problem through intervention would erode the profit margin… because early intervention requires a net increase in funding for schools and/or social services and not a reallocation of existing funds. Investors and politicians who think that there is enough money in the “inefficient” government system to solve problems rooted in poverty are engaged in magical thinking. The only way to reduce special education spending is to increase spending in regular education.
“School vs. Society in America’s Failing Schools”, Eduardo Porter’s column in today’s paper poses several tough questions for the critics of public education, all of which are framed in the initial two paragraphs:
Here’s the good news: American schools may not be as bad as we have been led to believe.
Ah, but here’s the bad news: The rest of American society is failing its disadvantaged citizens even more than we realize.The question is, Should educators be responsible for fixing this?
Throughout the column Porter offers evidence supporting the assertions made in the opening paragraph, drawing heavily on a report released last week by Martin Carnoy from the Graduate School of Education at Stanford, Emma García from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and Tatiana Khavenson from the Institute of Education at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, which suggests “…that socioeconomic deficits impose a particularly heavy burden on American schools.”
After outlining the impact of socioeconomic deficits on test scores, Porter offers counterarguments to the findings by Andreas Schleicher, the O.E.C.D.’s top educational expert, who runs the organization’s PISA tests whose results triggered the research by Carnoy et al.
“When you look at all dimensions of social background, the United States does not suffer a particular disadvantage.”
…As part of the PISA exercise, the O.E.C.D. collects information about parental education and occupation, household wealth, educational resources at home and other measures of social and economic status — and combines them into one index.
By that standard, fewer than 15 percent of American students come from the bottom rung of society. And yet, Mr. Schleicher found, 65 percent of principals in American schools say at least 30 percent of their students come from disadvantaged families, the most among nations participating in the PISA tests.
“I found this contrast between actual and perceived disadvantage so interesting that I intend to publish it shortly,” he told me.
This discrepancy is relatively easy to explain since “disadvantage” is often defined in schools by whether or not a student qualifies for free or reduced lunch… and over 50% of US school students now meet that threshold.
Schleicher and Carnoy do agree on one issue: parents of disadvantaged students should expect more from their children. This is a glib recommendation that is easy for policy makers to advance but far more difficult for schools to implement, especially when the parents of disadvantaged children have heard and absorbed the message that they are failures and heard and absorbed the message that the schools their children attend are failures.
Near the conclusion of the article, Carnoy contends that policy makers could learn more from comparisons between States that do well on assessments than countries that do well. But Scheicher disagrees:
Comparing the United States with other countries, he notes, allows researchers to identify particularly egregious deficits of American education.
There’s the wide disparity in resources devoted to education, which flows naturally from a system of school finance based on local property taxes. There’s the informal tracking that happens when smart children are grouped separately in gifted and talented classes while the less able are held back a year.
Teachers are paid poorly, compared to those working in other occupations. And the best of them are not deployed to the most challenging schools.
In a country like the United States, with its lopsided distribution of opportunity and reward, social disadvantage will always pose a challenge. What’s frustrating, Mr. Schleicher said, is “the inability of the school system to moderate the disadvantage.”
In this case, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Schleicher’s perspective, and the bottom line question they pose for politicians and policy makers: What steps are we willing to take to address the “particularly egregious deficits” identified as a result of the tests given to our students? And Mr. Schleicher’s identification of these deficits offers a clear answer to Mr. Porter’s initial question of whether educators should be responsible for fixing these deficits: NO!
- Vermont is Quietly Scaling Self-Actualized Learning… Without Standardized Testing
- Meaningful Metrics in Short Supply
- Uber-Capitalist David Brooks Champions Compassion and Caring over Individualism
- Cuomo Sees the Light: the NYTimes… not so much
- Legal Drugs in School: Medication Trumps Meditation When Time is Constant
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