Intervening in the Education Wars

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. 

6 thoughts on “Intervening in the Education Wars

  1. Mike Reno

    Paul confuses “Celebrating Progress” with “Mission Accomplished”. Nobody has ever said the latter, and Ravitch seems to all but ignore the former.

  2. DerekATC

    Don’t you have to have progress to celebrate it? What does it matter if one charter does OK but most don’t? What progress has been achieved?

    But seriously, the backlash exists for a reason. Education reform isn’t some novel thing. It’s something that’s uprooted the status quo for a decade and has basically nothing to show for it. And at worst it seems to merely provide political cover for opponents of public education to engage in destroying the system, and gives people even more excuse to pretend social insurance/welfare programs don’t matter. If poverty isn’t an impediment to educational success (given that education in and of itself is seen as antipoverty), then why would people support overt anti-poverty measures?

    That’s why there can be no peace, and that’s why reformers find themselves in the firing line.

  3. Alexander Russo

    good post, dana — i liked paul’s commentary, too. there were a couple of key things left out, however — *why* reformers make such outlandish claims in the first place being one example, the struggles that middle-ground initiatives like the promise neighborhoods have winning expansion support being another.

    my thoughts on the matter here
    link to

  4. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    Sorry, Dana, but it isn’t a war among friends. We’ve got on the one side billionaires and hedge-fund managers looking (quite openly: there are ample quotations outs there to support this claim) to make a killing off of public education through any means, fair or unfair, they have at their broad and deep moneyed disposal. On the other side, a whole lot of us little people – teachers, parents, kids, researchers, concerned citizens with progressive, pro-democratic politics – trying to figure out how to protect the basic idea of equitable, free, quality public education for everyone while at the same time making meaningful improvements to a system that has long-since been corrupted and misdirected by the very same capitalist, industrial business interests that are now trying to blatantly control EVERYTHING inside and outside of schools.

    Of course, there are variations and spectra to be looked at, subtleties and so forth, but basically that is what this is about and it isn’t pretty because the stakes are very high and people who get it (on both sides) know just how high those stakes are.

    There have been skirmishes at the curricular level (in literacy and math and to a lesser extent science and social studies) for the last two decades, but now the gloves are off, the masks dropped, and the game is on in earnest. You find folks here and there who wonder, “Why can’t we all just get along” and who try to make peace. Such folks are, frankly, terribly naive. They’ve failed to understand the depth of the battles, the deadly seriousness of what the fights are about, and ultimately what happens if too many smart people of good will stay neutral.

    To those who don’t get it, I can only say, “Pick a side or get out of the way.”

  5. DerekATC

    What Goldenberg said. The casualties of this war isn’t Arne Duncan’s feelings. This is beyond simple policy debate. It’s people’s livelihoods, people’s political voices, parents desires, and last but not certainly not least, the future of a lot of children.

    Does a truce get Milwaukee public schools back the money they lost to charters that do no better than them? Does a truce erase the cheating culture in the Atlanta public school system and get those teachers back to real education? Etc. etc.

  6. Lawrence

    “…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.”
    Whenever I see statements such as the one above, I know that I’m dealing with a complete (and dangerous) ignoramus on the subject of education. Small-scale “successes” rely on double self-selection bias–who chooses to apply, who chooses to stay–as in the KIPP schools. That’s why they have never been broadly replicated. I defy anyone to find a single example anywhere in the world where, within any ethnic group, the children of the more successful parents didn’t greatly outperform academically their relatively disadvantaged cohorts. Education is an extremely complicated subject, requiring great effort and knowledge to fully comprehend, and most of those yammering about it, including both recent POTUSes, don’t know any more about it than they do string theory.


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