Better Schools Won’t Fix America… But They Sure Would Help!

Wow, this piece by Nick Hanauer in The Atlantic is one-third correct and two-thirds completely and totally wrong. I’d be happy to see more education funders like Hanauer realize that education alone won’t fix America’s social problems, but, gosh, there’s still a lot more that schools could do to improve our society.

There’s a lot to unpack, but these sentences in particular made me want to scream:

In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow.

No, no, no! First, I don’t know of any study on the sequence that Hanauer is talking about here, while we do have research on how education leads to improvements in individual lives and in broader societies. The education route may not be as fast as Hanauer might prefer, but it’s certainly not zero.

Second, it seems like Hanauer may be defining “great schools” in terms of achievement levels, but that’s the wrong way to look at things. We should define “great schools” as schools that significantly improve the trajectories of the students in their care. Judged that way, education may not be the sole solution to all of America’s social problems, but funders shouldn’t discard it as one lever to improve the outcomes for our most disadvantaged children.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

3 Replies to “Better Schools Won’t Fix America… But They Sure Would Help!”

  1. He writes: “Just imagine, education reforms aside, how much larger and stronger and better educated our middle class would be if the median American family enjoyed a $29,000-a-year raise.”

    I think that would make a great experiment. I wonder if Hanauer could be encouraged to undertake it.

    300 families currently earning ~76k/year get a grant to reach his proposed 105k year. So about $8 million/year total cost. Figure out a control group. Watch things for 5 years. He did sign the billionaire pledge, so this strikes me as within his range.

    Even better: get a few other billionaires to each make a pet investment, and bundle all of these under the same outside evaluators. Hanauer has a point, I think, in that most school improvement efforts do indeed fail. See who “wins” their parlor discussion…which mechanism helps people the most.

  2. One of the problems with his data is too few schools achieve the first fundamental—proficient reading by ALL students at their grade level. Why, because they don’t really know how the brain learns to read. Both Phonics and Whole Language, the only two systems used, wholly fail.

    Consider: How does any human being learn to talk? Did either of your parents, or anyone else, for that matter, lean over your crib, or hold you on their lap (pre-verbal) and say “Hi, I’m Mommy. Mommy is a noun.” No, that certainly did not. What they did do was bathe your brain in meaningful sound in whatever language you were born into. The more that was done, the sooner and more fluently you learned to talk. Upper middle class kids are one million++ words ahead of children raised in poverty.

    What is the job of your brain? To keep the body it finds itself in alive in the environment in which it finds itself. Thus, it is working hard to ‘figure things out’. It hears all these sounds and starts to babble, trying to see what works. One day, it says “Mommy” and the environment goes nuts. “Wow! That must mean something. I think I’ll try that again.” And you are off to the races, learning more words all the time and how to string them together into an intelligible sentence with the verbs and nouns and adjectives in the right sequences without ever having heard of any of that stuff.

    Reading is the same issue. And uses all of the same parts of speech except it has to translate the connections between words (symbols), sentence structure and meaning. The way to do that is to stop trying to “Teach Reading” and instead, build the environment in which the brain does its job and figures it out for itself. That’s what happens for children who are read to all the time and arrive at school already reading. If you want to know lots more, go here.

    No, I do not work for them. But, when I discovered we had a significant number of our mill workers who couldn’t read (at all) or were severely crippled readers I searched around and found RR. It worked for everyone!! Employees advanced an average of a grade level per 10 hours of tutor time (all volunteers from the community except no teachers allowed because they just couldn’t get around their training). We had a PhD and upper manager in program, both seriously crippled readers (because of Phonics). Both became fluent readers in just over 20 hours. We helped over 1,000 employees and their families in dozens of mills all over the United States.

    So, Nick means well but unless the No. 1 requirement is achieved, fluent readying, he is conflating the failure he alludes to as needing money. Yes, it needs that but it also needs schools to use best practices and they won’t do it. The same theory base makes for excellent math results, too.

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