The Three Ps

Poverty: Joe Nocera takes a look at education and poverty.  Worth reading but two big strawmen oversimplify a complicated argument.

First, Nocera writes, “At its core, the [education] 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.” Actually, if you substitute “are key to improving” for “all that’s required” you’d have a more accurate view of the landscape.

Along the same lines, Nocera writes, “Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant. “There is no question that family engagement can matter,” said [Joel] Klein when I spoke to him. “But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let’s go home. We don’t yet know how much education can overcome poverty,” he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. “To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”

Again, no one in the mainstream of the debate argues it’s irrelevant.  The debate is whether, even all else equal, schools can do more than they do today despite the challenges of poverty. With dropout rates for minority student approaching 50 percent, a college completion rate by age 24 of just 8 percent for low-income students, and the enormous disparaties in achievement we see on state and national assessments, disparities in participation in gifted education and special education, etc..etc…I would say the answer is unequivocally yes.  But that’s absolutely not the same thing as irrelevant.*

Pensions: New data from Pew Center on the States about public sector pension liabilitiesActual report here. Three cautions.  First, while there is obviously a serious problem here some of the data here lags so just as states are still feeling the effects of the downturn they’re not yet feeling the full effects of the recovery. Second, while unfunded liabilities and assumptions in some places are out-of-control it is worth remembering that we probably don’t need to hold public and private sector plans to the exact same standards because there are some differences in the nature of the institutions.  Third, look state-by-state, the extent of the problem varies a great deal.

Pre-K: Also from Pew and NIEER is the new Pre-K yearbook with data about the status of pre-k efforts. Worth checking out, will be a big issue in coming months because the new Race to the Top money in the budget deal has a Pre-K component.  Also, hard to miss the juxtaposition and the inter-generation fiscal tension…

*Update: James Merriman has a good take on all this, too, well worth a click.

9 thoughts on “The Three Ps

  1. Cal

    “Actually, if you substitute “are key to improving” for “all that’s required” you’ve have a more accurate view of the landscape.”

    True. And you’d still be wrong.

    Put another way, dramatically improve all the teachers in low income schools and the achievement gap would diminish, what–10%? If that?

    And remember, the weakest teachers in minority schools are disproportionately minority, and Adrian Fenty’s fate demonstrated the risks of doing that. All that turmoil for maybe 10% improvement?

    To say nothing of the fact that all of our data about improved results come from elementary school tests. We’ve never seen significant results in high school. We have no major evidence of KIPP kids having much higher SAT scores, or much better scores in Algebra or Trig.

    We don’t know that improved teachers will dramatically increase the ability of low literacy sophomores to understand Hamlet, or kids who can’t grasp negatives or absolute values to genuinely master algebra.

    Besides, you just uncritically linked to a story in which a 22 year old organized college night for 12 year olds before going off to a new job training new teachers in Detroit–as if this is a critical success story. And now you’re saying that you don’t believe teachers are the magic bullet? Really?

  2. Attorney DC

    Eduwonk wrote: “Actually, if you substitute “are key to improving” for “all that’s required” you’d have a more accurate view of the landscape.” That is wrong, in my view. The ‘landscape’ (referring to the current education reform movement) almost exclusively focuses these days on improving / rating teachers, to the exclusion of all else.

    Living in the DC area, I witnessed Michelle Rhee (DC schools ‘Chancellor’) spend 99% of her reform efforts on hiring, evaluating and — most importantly– firing DCPS teachers. No visible efforts were spent on class size reduction, curriculum overhaul, parent outreach, disciplinary protocols or any other issues. All her efforts were focused on blaming, judging and firing scores of teachers in the system (some for cause but many simply based on the whims of a principal).

    This is why we teachers (and former teachers) get pretty irritated when pundits pretend that teacher evaluation is just ‘one part’ of a broad education reform plan. In reality, the current education reform movement puts all the pressure on the teachers to fix education problems, while turning a blind eye to the myriad other factors that are critically important to the academic success of our children.

  3. tom

    Cal – I totally agree. For example, when you wrote:

    “What proof do you have that this interest has any impact at all on academic achievement? Find me some cites that demonstrate a causal link between active interest in academic future and test results. No correlation allowed.”

    I think you were dead on the money. We don’t need good, happy, inspiring teachers. And it definitely doesn’t matter where kids come from or how much they are motivated to learn. All we need are really high performing schools. Like KIPP, those magnate schools in the burbs, and all the exclusive privates. Let’s close down our districts and give the money to them. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.

  4. Linda/RetiredTeacher

    Now that the effects of the Great Recession are waning, the press feels free to print the truth again. Alleluia!

  5. Cory

    I’m happy to see a focus on early childhood education– much needed! Where is DC in the report? I can’t believe that the nation’s capital was left out of such interesting research.

  6. notownedbyabillionaire

    The leverage point for improving educational outcomes is outside of schools, but its hard for reformers with a $115,000+ horse in the race to see that.

  7. Timothy Grivois-Shah

    For most people who want to create better schools for children than the truly failing schools that are available (read the data…it’s indisputable that such schools exist, and exist far more than ought be tolerated), the fact that poverty affects students profoundly is not something that we ignore. Rather, we acknowledge it, we accept it, and then we put every resource we can towards ameliorating the effects of poverty on our children.

    We do this by creating summer reading programs, extending the school day and year, and running our schools on year-round calendars. We work with the families in our communities to design programs responsive to their needs and aspirations for their children. We pay close attention to data, research, and best practice.

    Most importantly, the best of us support our teachers and celebrate what they do on the front lines to accomplish the missions of our schools. We publicly state over and over again that our great teachers are to be commended and our great schools are exemplars of what can be done right despite the obstacles.

    Yes, poverty matters. It matters a lot, actually, and reformers can’t pretend that we are not serving children with marked educational, social, and emotional needs if we are to do right by our children. Yet although it’s easy to see what’s wrong with the state of school reform, it’s much more helpful to note what’s right.

    For example, thanks to NCLB, test data must be disaggregated by race, IEP status, income, and gender. We can no longer hide our neediest students behind our high-performers.

    Also, for better or worse (and I admit, the worse can be ugly and undeserved for great professionals), the school reform movement has mortally wounded the prevailing culture in most places I’ve worked that tolerates failure.

    Most importantly, we no longer get to use poverty as an excuse for not teaching. Even the poor students ought to have our best efforts, and educators who believe that they cannot make a difference in the face of poverty are no longer allowed the last word.

    Nocera is right: Nothing I do in the schoolhouse or in my classroom will overcome every obstacle for every child. Typically, success requires much more than me or any other teacher, school leader, or school system can offer.

    But I cannot see any defensible way that I could claim that good school for all children of all races in all socioeconomic brackets isn’t an essential component to social reform.

  8. Franklin Mason

    To Mr. Grivois-Shah,

    I do agree that we owe our students the very best when they are within the walls of our schools.

    But even if we do this, results will be meager as Mr. Nocera rightly notes.

    We all wish the best for our students. (I teach at an Indiana high school, about an hour and a half south of Chicago.) But the problems of the classroom will not be solved in the classroom. The wider society must be transformed. Thus I think that the truly committed teacher must become politically active. Improvement in education outcomes will come as a result of a wider societal transformation, and education reformers must throw themselves into that project. We must widen our horizons, else we will fail. If we attempt to fix only the classroom, the classroom will remain largely unchanged.

    Of course this demands more of us. But a failure to widen our focus will result in a failure in our goals to improve education.

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