10 Ways School Reformers Get It Wrong

It’s widely agreed that American education is in trouble.  What is missed in both the response to the crisis and the cacophony of reform efforts is a true understanding of the nature of the problem.

In the early days of public schooling, Horace Mann called the schools the balance wheel of society. It was thought that schools served as a corrective for all kinds of problems ranging from skill gaps that needed to be remedied for the economy to flourish to culture gaps that were created by immigrants that needed to be Americanized. The school never worked in quite that way, but it was part of a web of social institutions that helped build a framework that allowed America to grow both in prosperity and in diversity. We face a lot of social and economic problems; we expect the schools to solve them. When they don’t, we think it’s a school failure. Instead, the schools are in fact a signal of a breakdown. Nowadays, the balance wheel is not working so well; it would be more accurate to think of public schools as the canary in the mine.

1. The school system as a whole is not a failure. For the children in the top 60% of the economic spectrum, schools serve pretty well to promote learning and educational mobility and achievement. The fact is, school failure is not high in suburban and middle-class neighborhoods. Schools have traditionally succeeded for middle-class students and families actively aspiring to climb the class ladder. In these families, learning readiness has been established in a culture that supports success and academic risk taking. Schools do well in partnership with this middle-class family culture.

When the bottom two-fifths is dropped from data in major city systems, those systems compete favorably with the best international results. Most efforts to reform school governance, create alternatives or bemoan teachers don’t address the real problem, which is poverty. They are, in fact, driven by a non-problem: Most students don’t fail in school. 

Parent education and income most predict the educational outcomes of their children. Public schools have to be in the business of combatting that equation for children from the bottom 40% of our population.

2. In the ways schools do fail, it is the same as it has been for 100 years. There is at the same time as traditional success, massive school failure and it’s historic. Schools have never succeeded with children from very low-income families. The failure rates we record in our schools, both now and in the past, are primarily the result of the failures sustained by the poor and the near-poor.

The real problem of American schooling has been endemic since early in the 20th century. And that problem is that America’s schools have historically and continuously failed low-income students, those in the bottom two quintiles of the socio-economic spectrum. The longstanding story of failure for the bottom two-fifths of the population, made up disproportionally of African Americans and immigrants, is seen in the data that shows a failure and drop-out rate of over 60% since 1900. These figures repeat for the first two generations of most immigrant groups. Indeed school success for ethnic groups has always followed economic opportunity, not created it. So it was not until 1970, when Irish and Italian immigrants had established economic stability via government service and industrial workplaces, that they began to enter college in large numbers. Gains for blacks followed where similar opportunities have been available (e.g. postal service, rail service, government agencies, and affirmative action career ladders and small business advantage).

While national data over the past decade confirms that there has been some improvement in total graduation and dropout rates, it remains the case that failure rates for low-income whites, African Americans and Hispanics still hover at 60%. Post-graduation testing reveals that fewer than half of high school graduates are college ready. This has long been true in state after state, especially in big cities. The state and national high school failure rate of close to 40% is not an indication of total system failure, but results from the high incidence of failure in low-income communities. The United States continues to rank near the bottom of developed nations on measures of social and economic mobility.

3.  Teachers are not the cause of the problem. In the context of persistent failure in poor communities, clearly teachers are not the cause of failure, nor is the school curriculum. We never blamed teachers in the past for the same levels of failure. Neither breaking the teacher’s union nor ultra-sonic testing nor privately purchased, online lessons will solve the problem that is both present in the failure of poor kids in schools and reflected by it; namely the dunghill of poverty that far too many kids are forced to grow up in.

4. School failure once matched economic needs. There was a time of course when academic failure in school matched economic needs. Jobs were available throughout the production system, both helping to generate national wealth and serving those who enjoyed it.  It could even be thought that if more kids succeeded in school, the socioeconomic system as it was operating would not have been well-served. Structural conditions of school achievement match the structural race and class parameters of the larger society. Indeed, not until after World War II did schools identify cognitively based skills as the core of their mission. The major curricular purposes served included retaining labor long enough, teaching discipline—so much so that school critics often saw the school regimen as factory-like – and Americanizing immigrants. Not until the 1960s movement toward social welfare programs did the goal of high level school achievement even begin to include African American children. And for children of Italian and Irish origin, work opportunity was only just beginning to have a relationship to school success.  

In the past, the failure rates were much more functional: attendance at school taught useful habits of mind and behavior for an industrial economy. This is not in sync with today’s national needs and opportunities. Therefore, it is more important than ever to identify the true nature of educational failure in this country so that the remedies put in place are not a quick fix magic bullet, but rather a long-term strategy and investment in low-income communities that refuses to accept the distorted version of school reform at the top. As a result, by today’s standards, trends in high school dropout and graduation rates over the last decades paint a bleak picture.

5. Increased testing does not improve failure rates. Despite the heavy push toward testing and 20 years of increasingly tough testing, we know now that the failure rates don’t change with intensified testing. With or without tests, schools have a hard time generating a readiness to learn, the self-esteem and confidence it takes to learn, and the belief that the school rewards system through college is applicable. Poor kids don’t believe schools care about them and history tells them they’re right, as do their peers and older siblings. Middle-class kids come to school with a readiness to learn, strong self-esteem as learners and belief that the school promise system applies to them. They don’t learn that at school. Successful reform must include dealing with generating that three-part readiness -- the self esteem, the confidence and the fundamental positive belief -- in the whole school population. It’s interesting that programs like the Harlem RBI after school curriculum, which focuses on baseball at the core of learning, reminds us that kids don’t come to school stupid. The things they’re interested in lead them to learn a lot and apply and develop their skills in so doing.   

6. We often forget what smart things have been tried in education before. History is a powerful mine of data. Short-term memory leads to misidentifying problems and establishing misleading solutions. That’s true about the general definition of school failure. But it’s also true about what we know works and what we’ve experimented with in the past. Still, amnesia seems to prevail, even to the extent that those currently facing school problems generally don’t ask the question, “What have people done or thought about this before?” The 1970s was a period of enormous classroom and school governance experimentation executed in the context of continuing the national battle against poverty. Forms of diagnostic testing, common use of media, teacher training, parent training, and career ladders that brought parents into the schools as professionals made the school a place where, for a short time, it seemed that they could indeed be the engine of serious social change. We’re not reinventing wheels today. We are actually trying to build square ones.

“Pygmalion” studies in the US and abroad, particularly in the 1970s, suggested how school and teacher expectations shape student performance. This was largely the result of a one-size-fits-all approach to the classroom, which began to shift as understanding developed of the range of learning styles bring to the classroom. The North Dakota Study Group made great progress in developing measurement and documentation techniques that were responsive to learning style differences. “Youth Tutoring Youth” programs demonstrated that students engaged in tutoring younger students made great gains in their own learning because they were drilling themselves and building confidence. The National Commission on Resources for Youth collected data that showed how students working in their communities doing work valued in those communities came to the classroom excited to think about curricula developed out of those experiences and with a new sense of themselves.

7. Class size matters. Researchers have argued back and forth on this one. But common sense tells us that Mitt Romney is quite wrong when he suggests that a good teacher can easily teach even up to 100 children in one classroom. Most people can remember the one person in their life whose intervention and trust made all the difference. So class size matters in part because teachers matter. For some of us it was a teacher, for some a parent, but when there are 30 or 40 kids in a class there’s very little chance of that close relationship happening in school. Furthermore, some teachers work well with big classes, some with small. We’re facing a teacher shortage. We need a range of teachers for a range of learning styles. There is not a one-size fits all solution. Experience and training matter too. Class size and teacher preparedness are critical elements in an effective classroom. Getting young blood into the school as teachers and teaching assistants (like Teacher Corps, City Corps, and other such programs, which abound through private and public funding) is a good approach to training teachers, but not to populating the classroom with young, inexperienced people in training instead of teachers with knowledge and experience. 

If we think about the education of privileged kids we can recognize quickly that a small adult-student ratio is a central anchor and face-to-face individual attention is highly prized. Who would pay for private school education with 40 or 50 kids in the classroom? Why do parents hire coaches for test preparation? Why is summer camp built on the idealized relationship with the counselor? It’s all based on our understanding that the close relationship between one child and an adult is invaluable for learning, self esteem, and achievement.   However we organize our classrooms, we have to create opportunities for close individual relationships to evolve.

8. Service as part of the school experience has great potential. The increased experimentation with types of "service" in schools taps into a very important motivational nerve amongst children and teenagers. There’s a community spirit and idealism that makes service exciting and rewarding. Too often, however, the plethora of service programs does not directly connect to school reform activity. Yet it is one of the best universal approaches to making schools more effective and leveling the playing field. If the school curriculum included a service track that led to increasing service opportunities with a strong reflective component that stimulated cognitive awareness, considerable change would result. We know that in tutoring programs, the person doing the tutoring gains as much as the tutee. In the provision of services, the provider learns as much as the recipient gains.

To shift the opportunities for low-income students requires replicating the advantages of middle-class students in poor communities. With that in mind, an ambitious experiment was begun three years ago by the New World and NoVo Foundations called COIN (Civic Opportunities Institutive Network), starting with 10th graders. The program aims to provide instruction in social emotional and academic learning (SEL), including committed adult mentors, civic education, valued work opportunities in community based originations and guaranteed access to a four-year college education. There has been some noteworthy progress both in college retention rates and grade point scores. The cohort numbers are small and only one year of college has been completed, but the promise is strong: an 85% retention rate and 40% with 3.0 plus grade point average. That’s a foundation for fundamental school reform: that is success for the bottom two-fifths.

9. Schools don’t have a monopoly on educating children. During the post-Great Society Program era, there was an understanding that schools were not the only vehicle by which children were educated. This was the era of Sesame Street and The Electric Company – both created not only to provide educational stimulation through television, but to provide a positive educational option in the face of increasing television viewing by kids where lots of negative options dominated. The media today more than ever are a critical backdrop for how kids learn about the world and themselves, what they value, and what they expect. It takes a village to sustain long-term poverty and school failure at massive scale, generation after generation. Media, unemployment, homelessness, hunger and incarceration all play a role in failure. Schools can’t turn it around alone; comprehensive public policies are also necessary. That’s why Finland is the best, least understood example of school success quoted by Americans. Finland is at the top of global scores in education, but also for healthcare, family policy and job security.

10. Privatization of schools is not the solution. Privatization is no magic bullet. For-profit schools simply intensify the hierarchy of unequal investment in children. It takes somewhere above $75,000 a year to educate a child from a privileged background, including tuition, enrichment programs, and tutors. Education is not cheap for anybody. The for-profit system tries to cheapen the process. In doing so, it excludes children who have been selected out for their disabilities and special needs, all of whom public schools must accept. That means the private, for-profit schools receive the same tuition per child that the public schools do but have a more homogenous population to work with. So the kids in the greatest need have the fewest dollars spent on them, relative to the needs and resources spent moving upward through the hierarchy of cognitive readiness and economic background. Indeed, it’s not a bullet at all – except as conceived as a bullet to our heads.

Schools for-profit drain public resources into profits, not performance. Public charter schools are a different proposition. These are inventions that add to the diversity of the public education environment. They aren’t in themselves answers to any of the questions we face, but they are a new and valuable source of wide-scale experimentation in what could be done to achieve improvements. If they capture greater parent interest, if they spark the interests of young people who otherwise were disinterested, if they find new ways to create relationships of trust between adults and students, if they bring parents into the school and bring the school into the community, they will serve us well.

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