I have been on the road for much of the last couple of weeks, much of that time spent visiting “poor” schools doing well. You will, I hope, see the results of my road trip fact-finding in future Fordham publications, but for now I can confidently report that, despite economic challenges (which are real), good things are happening in the provinces (i.e. anywhere not on Capitol Hill or Maryland Avenue). Whatever happens with ESEA reauthorization, I am convinced that the genie of education excellence is out of the bottle; administrators, teachers, aides, security guards – they are getting with the program.
In the meantime, catching up on my reading, I call your attention to a few recent stories worth pondering.
Rupert gets it right, sorta. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, called “The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform,”** Rupert Murdoch leaps into the deep end of the argument over schools by proposing that we’re not making adequate use of technology. This is sensible. But one wishes that the media-mogul-turned-educator would dive a little deeper (or call Joel). Murdoch says,
Just as the iPod compelled the music industry to accommodate its customers, we can use technology to force the education system to meet the needs of the individual student.
What exactly are “the needs” of a student? And who determines them? Those questions should be answered before assuming that the “[t]he top-down, one-size-fits-all approach” is bad, as Murdoch suggests. What exactly do we mean by “one-size-fits-all”?
Shouldn’t adults decide what kids should know? Shouldn’t all our children know how to read and write, know how to find France on a map, know the difference between the Pythagorean theorem and the Periodic table? Who decides?
We can agree that there has been a “colossal failure” to educate our children and that “the education industry bears a good part of the blame.” But is it because we have already succumbed to the anarchy of the “child-centered” classroom? We need to do a lot more reflecting about what exactly the “tired wares” of the status quo really are. Is a textbook really “outdated the moment it is printed”?
As Ed Kaitz, Ph.D., of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, wrote in his letter to the editor about Mr. Murdoch’s comment:
It might be news to Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Adam Smith and others on my syllabus that their writings have been outdated the moment they were printed.
Occupy the Classroom That was the headline above Nick Kristof’s brilliant column about the importance of early childhood education. Indeed, while expressing sympathy for the wishes of the Occupy Whatever movement, Kristof says that “the single step that would do the most to reduce inequality has nothing to do with finance at all. It’s an expansion of early childhood education.”
I like Kristof, and not just because he grew up on an Oregon sheep and cherry farm not far from where I was growing up on a sheep and filbert farm. He has reported extensively from depressed corners of the globe and has good truth-seeking antenna (farmers have to be astute readers of reality). When he says that there is a “bigger source of structural inequity” in our economic system than billionaire tax breaks, we need to listen. And the bigger problem, Kristof says, is that “many young people never get the skills to compete. They’re just left behind.”
For this essay Kristof touches bases with Kathleen McCarney, dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education; David Deming, also at Harvard; and James Heckman at the University of Chicago. “One common thread,” says Kristof, “whether I’m reporting on poverty in New York City or in Sierra Leone, is that a good education tends to be the most reliable escalator out of poverty. Another common thread: whether in America or Africa, disadvantaged kids often don’t get a chance to board that escalator.”
I continue to believe, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, that poverty, though a real challenge, has been used as a convenient excuse by too many educators; an excuse not to improve, not to seek changes in school organization and instructional techniques, not to raise expectations. I have spent a lot of time in schools with poor kids – schools that are succeeding – and know that success is not some miracle, nor is it something derived from a Herculean effort. Hard work, yes. Commitment, yes. Focus, yes and yes.
Gap closers, unite: Occupy the classroom.
Equal opportunity in choosing a school A recent Wall Street Journal editorial had it right in criticizing civil rights groups like the NAACP for not jumping on the educational choice bandwagon since, as the Journal says, “reform’s main beneficiaries are poor and minority students in places like Harlem and New Orleans.”
The editorial cites a new study by the California Charter Schools Association which studied the state’s Academic Performance Index (API), which runs on a scale from 200 to 1000, and found that, according to the Journal,
[T]he average black charter student outscored the average black traditional school student by an average of 18 points over the last four years of publicly available data. In reform hubs like Los Angeles, the charter advantage was 22 points, in Sacramento 48 points, in Oakland 51 and in San Francisco 150. In San Diego, the other major urban center, traditional schools outscored charters by an average of eight points.
The irony here is that the education status quo that some of these civil rights groups support has not been good to African American adults either. According to Arne Duncan, more than 35 percent of our public school students are black or Hispanic, less than 15 percent of teachers are black or Hispanic. “It is not good for any of our country’s children that only one in 50 teachers is a black man.” (See here.)
Concludes the Journal:
The education achievement gap remains enormous—even in charter schools, black kids in California are almost 150 API points behind their white peers. But the gap won’t get any narrower as long as civil-rights leaders oppose the reforms that are doing the most to bridge it.
A Tocquevillian education. Finally, it was a happy moment to see Bill Evers recall the insights of that famous 19th century French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville in warning of federal intrusion in educational affairs. Writes Evers:
One of Tocqueville’s major insights was that Americans have benefited from popular participation in the large number of churches, charities, clubs, and voluntary associations in our country, as well as in state and local governments, which stand between the individual and the national government in Washington, D.C.
It is important to remember that the power of Tocqueville comes from the acuity of his observations. He was first and foremost a reporter – and a good one. And the genius of that reporting is proved by the accuracy of the conclusions he forms – one reason that his Democracy in America has withstood the test of time: not as historical artifact but as a valuable roadmap for today’s governance travelers. He got to the heart of the thing.
Evers has written a fine essay. And its most important insight is in suggesting how far we have strayed from the days of the “school committee” which built and ran local schools to today’s Titanic bureaucracies.
Some people still have a romantic, out-dated image of school districts and local boards. Today, they are not the school committees that Tocqueville saw, but rather, to a large degree, creatures of the Progressive Era. If we want to change that and re-invigorate school boards, we will have to restore avenues for popular participation of the sort Tocqueville sought. For example, Indiana recently put school elections in November, when more people vote. Another new promising avenue for popular participation is Parent Trigger, whereby parents can petition to turn a regular public school into a charter school.”
It really is worth considering a trip back to the future.
**The Jobs model, according to Murdoch, is derived from the famous 1984 Super Bowl ad for the Mac in which a woman throws a hammer through the television screen shouting, “We shall prevail.” “If you ask me,” says Murdoch, that’s “what we need to do in education.”
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