Fie on fatalism

School reforms come and go. But educational determinism, it
appears, goes on forever. By which I mean the view that schools are
essentially powerless to accomplish much by way of learning gains, no
matter what is done to or about them. That is because--take your
pick--they don't have enough money/time/experienced teachers; or
students face so many problems in their lives that it's folly to expect
schools to do more with them; or kids lack the innate ability to acquire
more skills or deeper knowledge, regardless of how their schools may
change.

 

That's three different
arguments, of course. The first is most apt to come from educators and
experts who contend--forget four decades of post-Coleman evidence to the
contrary--that there's some sort of linear relationship between what
goes into schooling by way of resources and what comes out by way of
learning. Hence if we crave more of the latter we had best cough up more
of the former.

 

The second--I've long thought of it as the "Gee, Officer Krupke"
argument--is typically heard from well-meaning liberals (e.g., Richard
Rothstein) who earnestly want income to be redistributed, health care
provided, families propped up, racial barriers eased, and so on. They
see kids, especially disadvantaged kids, facing non-school challenges
that swamp what schools can accomplish. Solve those larger societal
problems, they say, and educational achievement will flourish. (The
latest Quality Counts from the publishers of Education Week contains a whiff
of this. And one often hears something like it from educators who
contend that any achievement shortfalls are really the parents' fault.)

 

The
third form of determinism, most prominently associated with Charles
Murray, holds that IQ is destiny--and is immutable. With half of
everyone having below-average intellect, he writes in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere (see here),
schools are fruitlessly trying (as the schoolteacher wife of a
prominent education-reform governor once said to me) to cram a quart of
learning into a pint pot.

 

Chocolate,
vanilla, or strawberry, it scarcely matters which flavor of fatalism
you select. All send the same signal: that standards-based reform in
general, and NCLB in particular, are doomed. That school choice can't
accomplish much, either. Indeed, that nothing within the realm of
education policy and practice, or within the control of schools and
those who work in them, is really capable of producing significant
achievement gains.

 

I beg to
differ. Education reform is all about making schools more effective and
productive so that kids do in fact learn more. That's no fantasy, even
if the determinists want us to think it is. Rather, it's the reality in
hundreds of high-performing, high-poverty schools across the country, be
they district, charter, or private. They all start with more or less
the same sorts of kids with the same sorts of problems and with similar
cognitive capacities. Yet they produce markedly better results. They may
not get to 100 percent proficiency, but they get a heckuva lot closer
than your typical school serving disadvantaged youngsters.

 

No,
we don't have nearly enough super-schools today. That's the education
reform challenge. But it doesn't take many such schools to belie the
claim that it can't be done. As Kant wrote, the actual proves the
possible.

 

High-performance
schools have been studied for at least twenty years and we know, more or
less, what sets them apart. They have a clear mission, team spirit, a
coherent curriculum and pedagogy (though these take many forms),
talented teachers, and values that embrace success. They also benefit
from strong leaders,

 

Many of them
also muster more time on task: longer school days, weeks, and years,
and teachers who are accessible during off hours. Which isn't to say
every "extended day" program yields higher achievement, only that
high-achieving schools typically occupy a larger fraction of kids'
lives.

 

That's both because these
schools see the need for more teaching-and-learning time and because
they want to keep their students off the streets. High-performance
schools are reshaping poor kids' aspirations, priorities, and peer
groups while imparting cognitive skills and knowledge. 

 

If
we want more such schools, we'll likely have to spend more, or at least
drive more of our dollars to our neediest schools. (Yes, "inputs" can
make a difference--properly used.) But just as important is quelling
the forces in American life that push against more time-on-task: summer
employers who don't want the school year longer; union contracts that
confer on teachers the right to go home at 2:43 p.m.; the entertainment
industry with its appetite for kids' attention during evenings and
weekends; and, of late, the dumbest idea of all: the push for less
homework.

 

Homework is the most
economical way for a school to stretch kids' learning time, albeit not
necessarily the most effective (nor best at keeping them off the
streets). But several wrong-headed recent books assert that there's too
much of it, that it's mindless and formulaic and doesn't leave
youngsters enough time "to be kids" (see here and here).

As
one might suspect, the schools first influenced by this nonsense are
elite institutions attended mainly by upper-middle class kids. Those are
the kids fortunate enough to have salubrious places to go and things to
do, and people to look after them once school lets out. They are the
kids most apt to have shelves of books and parents who read--and who
limit their TV access. These kids may do fine with limited
school-prescribed homework. But the normal trajectory of education ideas
is for them to trickle down from schools serving the prosperous middle
class to schools that serve mostly the poor. (The most destructive
example being classroom constructivism, which may work okay for kids
with structure, discipline, and systems at home but, as E.D. Hirsch has
shown, is a dire blunder for youngsters who depend on school for such
things.)  

 

Most
policymakers, employers, and college professors, and plenty of students
themselves, understand that U.S. children can and should be learning
more than they are today. Whatever their innate capacity--and it's far
more elastic than the Murrays of the world realize--they have plenty of
underutilized brain cells that could absorb lots more skills and
knowledge. The key premise of NCLB is that this is possible and
desirable and that the most direct path to it involves taking steps to
change low-performing schools.

 

Even
if 100 percent proficiency by 2014 is dreamy, what a different country
this would be--how much better, stronger, and prosperous in so many
ways--if we moved from today's 30 percent proficiency (using NAEP
standards) to, say, 70 or 80 percent. And if poor and minority kids, in
particular, were doing lots better and those vexing gaps were shrinking.

 

Combatting the determinists and fatalists is a multi-front war. But one well worth fighting--and winning.

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