Paul Tough has written one of the most sensible pieces about education reform I've read in a long while, an intervention into the debate between Diane Ravitch and her critics, like Jonathan Alter and David Brooks, who claim she misuses statistics.
…a more productive response would be to recommit to the principle that 15 (or 17) percent proficiency just isn’t good enough, no matter where you live. To acknowledge this fact is not to say that reform is doomed; it is not blaming students or insulting teachers. It is merely reminding ourselves that the 83 percent of 11th-grade students at Urban Prep who didn’t pass the state exam, and the 85 percent of 9th-grade students at Bruce Randolph who didn’t pass the state writing test, deserve better.
So why are some reformers resorting to excuses? Most likely for the same reason that urban educators from an earlier generation made excuses: successfully educating large numbers of low-income kids is very, very hard. But it is not impossible, as reformers have repeatedly demonstrated on a small scale. To achieve systemwide success, though, we need a shift in strategy.
The reformers’ policy goals are, in most cases, quite worthy. Yes, contracts should be renegotiated so that the best teachers are given incentives to teach in the poorest schools, and yes, school systems should extend the school day and school year for low-income students, as many successful charter schools have done. But these changes are not nearly sufficient. As Paul Reville, the Massachusetts secretary of education, wrote recently in Education Week, traditional reform strategies “will not, on average, enable us to overcome the barriers to student learning posed by the conditions of poverty.” Reformers also need to take concrete steps to address the whole range of factors that hold poor students back. That doesn’t mean sitting around hoping for utopian social change. It means supplementing classroom strategies with targeted, evidence-based interventions outside the classroom: working intensively with the most disadvantaged families to improve home environments for young children; providing high-quality early-childhood education to children from the neediest families; and, once school begins, providing low-income students with a robust system of emotional and psychological support, as well as academic support.
I spoke to The Nation's summer interns this afternoon, and someone asked me why the education policy debate is so nasty. It's a war among friends, I explained–a debate between people who share broad commitments to civil rights, economic mobility, and meritocracy, yet who disagree stridently about what path to take to get there.
Here are some of the most contentious binaries I see:
– School choice vs. the right to a high-quality education
– career prep/workforce development/vocational education vs. "college for all"
– teacher/school accountability vs. teacher/school autonomy
– management/labor/HR reform vs. curricular/instructional reform
When I'm out reporting in successful schools, I often find that the fertile gound lies between the poles of these debates. A school like Aviation High School, for example, prepares kids for college while also making sure they earn an occupational certificate that will allow them to pursue full-time employment after graduation.
Paul's piece is really worth a close read. Education reform shouldn't be an "either/or" debate, but more about "and." Kids–especially poor kids–need far more academic, vocational, social, and psychological interventions, provided by well-trained adults and institutions.