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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