Education,

How to Fix the American Education System: Part Two

Pedro Noguera
I could take you on over the issue of competition and spend time pointing out that we’re expecting schools to compete on an uneven playing field and limiting possibilities for collaboration, but I want to raise what I regard as the most important educational issue in the country today: poverty. The recent data released this week by the Census shows that nearly 24% of all children in this country come from households with incomes that fall below the poverty line. Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada have the highest child poverty rates and the least in the way of support systems for children.

This is a huge educational and social dilemma that threatens our nation’s future, and I hear few elected officials discussing it at all. Poverty is not a short term problem. Research shows that children born in poverty frequently experience developmental challenges that will plague them throughout their lives.

Right now our public schools are the only institutions that are serving impoverished children on a regular basis and most are overwhelmed by the broad array of needs they bring with them to school. Many of these are “failing” schools but I would argue they have been set up to fail because they lack the resources to even address the issues that poor children bring with them to school. Earlier, you mentioned several urban districts in New Jersey where per pupil spending is high. I would argue the most important issue is how money is spent and in many of those places there is considerable waste. Rather than blaming schools for their inability to meet the needs of poor children we need leadership at the federal, state and local level to address this issue. Unfortunately, I’ve seen very few problem solvers tackling this issue at any level, including many of those you call “Cage busters”.
Programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone have been widely heralded but they are too expensive to replicate. The Obama Administration created the Promise Neighborhood Initiative to support efforts to build systems in local areas, but it was not funded adequately by Congress. We need strategies that combine public and private resources along with civic volunteerism to confront this crisis. That’s what I saw occurring in Tulsa and I’ve seen similar work taking place in Fort Worth Texas, Durham, NC and the Southside of Chicago. I am inspired by those who refuse to wait for the government to provide leadership but I worry that in the absence of a coherent strategy many children will slip through the cracks. We can not afford to write off a generation of children and that’s exactly what is happening now.

Frederick Hess
This brings us to a really intriguing place. I don’t think we disagree on the facts you just sketched regarding poverty. We agree that poverty has a major impact on academic success. And we agree that it’s a mistake to disregard where kids start when deciding whether schools are “failing” (or “succeeding,” for that matter).

Where we disagree, I suspect, is about the implications. And that’s because the answers are as much about how we think about the world as they are about how we think about classrooms and schools. It’s easy for us to agree that schools need to set a high bar, better address student needs, engage the community, elevate their game, and so forth. But I don’t expect that to “solve” the problem, and I’m pretty sure you don’t either. After those instructional efforts (which, let’s note, can absolutely make a huge difference), things get complicated. For starters, I’m opposed to reforms which would involve shortchanging affluent or proficient students by focusing single-mindedly on steering resources and talented teachers into schools and programs serving children in poverty. As I argued a few years ago in National Affairs, it’s hard for me to reconcile a single-minded focus on “gap-closing” with the democratic charge to help all students fulfill their potential.

More broadly, the issue of poverty is inevitably intertwined with larger questions of adult behavior, personal responsibility, and the proper role of the state. For instance, many liberals suggest we need to increase food stamp payments, create more public jobs, offer more subsidized housing, and so forth. These proposals get framed as “education-related” because the hope is they’ll better equip students to succeed. At the same time, of course, such programs amount to giving stuff to the adults in question. My concerns are twofold. One, I think the social benefits will be more modest than anticipated—because some of the challenges ascribed to “poverty” are actually due to problematic adult behaviors (e.g. not reading to kids, not being married, and so forth). “Poverty alleviation” won’t necessarily address the adult behaviors, and may enable them. Two, I believe that many “anti-poverty” programs erode norms of personal responsibility, foster dependence, and undermine community institutions by fueling a creeping enlargement of public bureaucracies

I’m all for private initiatives, community action, and philanthropic engagement. (A big irony here, of course, is that many progressive voices calling for more spending have also vilified foundations like Gates, Walton, and Broad that have been some of the biggest private funders of K-12 in recent years). But where we part ways is on the case for an infusion of more public funds. For one thing, nationally, nominal per pupil spending increased just about every year from 1933 through 2010. Heck, after-inflation spending has more than tripled since 1970.

Yet I think K-12 has done a generally unimpressive job of putting these resources to good use. And an influx of new resources, in any organization, can become a crutch that allows leaders to put off hard decisions. Now, I’m open to the idea that we may need to spend more on K-12—but only after I’ve seen sustained, aggressive efforts to rethink the use of scarce funds. And I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that. Do you believe that funds are being spent wisely and well today? If so, let’s get into that one. And, if not, how can K-12 justify asking for ever more public funds from strapped treasuries until we become better stewards of the $600 billion a year we already collect?

Pedro Noguera
Well Rick, I thought we were pretty close on most issues but now we have one where our differences are pretty clear. Why would you frame the effort to address the needs of poor children or to close the achievement gap as something that will diminish support for affluent children? The general pattern throughout the country is that per pupil spending is highest for the wealthiest children. What’s the basis of your concern? Even within schools that are relatively integrated with respect to the racial and socio-economic composition of the student population we consistently assign the least effective teachers to teach the most disadvantaged students.

I’ve seen your argument play out in many affluent districts where any effort to address tracking and the way it tends to segregate students by race and class within schools is met by stiff opposition from affluent parents who have far more power and influence. I find it ironic that you think it necessary to be their advocates when the record shows they know how to do a pretty good job on their own. The alternative to tracking is not watering down the curriculum and lowering standards for high achievers. The alternative is insuring that all children have access to good teachers, academic rigor and educational opportunities that expand access to college and careers. We can only do this if we avoid framing the issue in zero-sum terms and instead recognize that equity and excellence can in fact be compatible goals. There are a few districts and charter schools that are showing us this can be done. I think we should learn from them.

While I agree that the problems facing poor children and the schools they attend cannot simply be reduced to money, or spending more of it on them, (DC schools are the best example for showing that money can be wasted and have no bearing at all on student outcomes), I completely reject the idea that by doing more to help the children that are presently languishing in bad schools we will somehow hurt the educational opportunities of the affluent.

The lack of attention to equity in financing and equality in educational opportunities is hurting the entire country, but too many affluent people don’t see it because their children are fine. It is only when we recognize how inter-connected our fates are that we will begin to generate the will to insure that all children receive a quality education.

Frederick Hess
Let’s see. Three thoughts. First, I do want to push you to explain whether you think school systems today are spending the resources they already have wisely and well. Because I think that speaks to the question of whether we can do better for all children, or whether schools can only do better if they get new resources.

Second, it would be terrific if you could source the assertion that schools routinely spend more on affluent kids. Certainly, the federal Equity and Excellence Commission claimed this. But the U.S. General Accounting Office has reported that there are no clear, systematic differences in spending between suburban and urban systems. Meanwhile, while we can certainly find instances of affluent advantage, let’s also note that East Cleveland outspends Shaker Heights, Denver outspends Douglas County, Washington D.C. outspends Fairfax County, and so on.

Third, sure, seeking to close racial or income-based achievement gaps doesn’t have to come at the expense of those who are already proficient. But I think a lot of hard-won experience shows that school systems tend to react clumsily, not carefully, when pressed to “close achievement gaps.” When a gifted teacher is assigned to an affluent school, as we’re often reminded, it means she isn’t teaching in an impoverished school. The converse is equally true. When districts move teachers, zero out advanced courses, cannibalize gifted programs, or encourage teachers to shift their instructional focus to struggling students … that’s a trade-off. It may be a worthwhile trade-off, but it is a trade-off. Yet, that’s something that I find far too many advocates, policymakers, and officials casually brush aside in their enthusiasm for “gap-closing.”

I’m all for higher bars for all students, wishing away tough trade-offs, and the rest. But I’m afraid I don’t know of any districts or charter schools that have made the trade-offs disappear. As you note, there are certainly schools and systems that serve all students better, but tough choices still have to be made. And when we make them, I find it troubling that parental concerns are so frequently dismissed as “selfish”.

For instance, consider the findings from the Fordham Foundation’s national survey of Advanced Placement teachers from a couple years ago. Fordham reported that AP teachers share a sense that their courses have been watered down in recent years, as they’ve been asked to teach students who aren’t prepared for these classes. Teachers also reported enormous pressure to focus their energy on less proficient rather than more proficient students. Yet, the experts and advocates have not said much about the negative effects on those students who were clearly ready for AP-level work. And well-intended calls to get past “zero-sum” thinking don’t make these complex cost-benefit decisions go away (Now, again, if you agree that schools and systems are often not spending existing funds wisely and well, then we’ve identified a huge opportunity to do better by everyone).

I think it’s today’s would-be reformers (on left and right) who have opted to promote a school improvement agenda seemingly designed to alienate affluent and suburban families. As I argued in “Our Achievement Gap Mania,” “Gap-closing strategies can be downright unhelpful or counterproductive when it comes to serving most students and families…Longer school years and longer school days can be terrific for disadvantaged students or low achievers, but may be a recipe for backlash if imposed on families who already offer their kids many summer opportunities and extracurricular activities. Policies that seek to shift the ‘best’ teachers to schools and classrooms serving low-achieving children represent a frontal assault on middle-class and affluent families. And responding to such concerns by belittling them is a sure-fire strategy for ensuring that school reform never amounts to more than a self-righteous crusade at odds with the interests of most middle-class families.” Simply put, I think today’s “equity” agenda asks that middle-class and affluent families pay more while offering “reforms” largely designed to meet the needs of someone else’s children. If these families balk, reformers respond by dismissing the legitimacy of their concerns (all the while muttering, “Relax, your kid will be fine.”)

All right, pal, now three questions for you. First, do you think schools and systems generally spend dollars wisely and well? If not, why not, and what do you think it’ll take to change things around?

Second, you previously denounced “zero-sum” thinking. But it seems to me that zero-sum thinking is just part of public policy. A dollar spent on Iraq can’t be spent on health care. Funds to repair that road can’t be used to build this road. And funds to hire that ELL instructor can’t be used to hire this AP physics teacher. So, just what do you have in mind?

Third, you say middle-class and affluent parents need to see that we’re all “inter-connected”… and then embrace your proffered reforms. What if I argue that they may already “see” that we’re connected, but that they don’t believe your agenda is going to be good for them or their kids? Do you think they ought to embrace things they believe will be bad for their own kids because they’re told that these will be good for the nation as a whole?

Pedro Noguera
The first question is hard to answer without generalizing, but…I would say no. I have worked with lots of districts and I see lots of waste. I often suggest to superintendents that they do an audit to look at how public dollars are spent. However, the same is true of government generally. Some of this is related to the red tape of bureaucracy; some to nepotism. But keep in mind that 85% of most district budgets go to personnel. I’ve seen lot’s of districts that have been forced to make severe cuts to their budgets in recent years eliminating kindergarten aids, music and other programs regarded as “extras”. In Philadelphia, class sizes are rising to about 40 students per classroom in high school. I don’t think waste is the problem there or at the impoverished schools I have visited in Mississippi, New Mexico and even California, but I do think funds could be spent more efficiently than they often are.

As to your second question; zero-sum thinking pits groups against each other. This is the problem in Washington today. Instead of problem solving and collaborating, our political leaders in Washington are engaged in a senseless battle for power. Any new piece of legislation is regarded as a win for one side and a loss for the other. This kind of thinking is destroying our ability as a nation to be creative and develop solutions that serve the common interest. Because of the slumping economy several states have imposed severe cuts on schools. These cuts don’t affect all schools in the same way. When schools serving poor children experience reductions in funding it often results in more failure and higher dropout rates. This in turn contributes to higher unemployment, more crime and more incarceration. Whose interests does that serve?

The alternative to zero-sum thinking is focusing on our common interests and developing solutions from there. In education this means finding ways to meet the needs of all children and focusing to a greater degree on motivating and personalizing education to the degree that we can. If a student is ready for calculus in the 7th grade or can read Moby Dick in the 4th grade, why not let them? At the same time, why should we tolerate the common practice of assigning the least experienced and least effective teachers to teach the neediest children? Who is helped by that? Yet, that is a pervasive practice precisely because of zero-sum thinking. In most of the districts I work, the powerful always prevail and inequality grows. In some cases, the affluent get fed up and either move or put their kids in private schools. This actually undermines public education further because when they leave they no longer have an investment in the quality of the public schools and invariably the system deteriorates further. The alternative is to work to create schools that work for everyone. This is one of the things that must be done to counter inequality. But wait, do you think the growing inequality we’ve seen in this country over the last 30 years is good for our nation’s future?

Living in a democratic society requires us to make some sacrifices. It’s related to the social contract and much more. Affluent parents like you and I (I’m assuming you have kids, don’t you?) do a lot to help our kids with our own resources. We take them on trips, help them with homework, read to them at night, etc. We have a built-in advantage over those with fewer resources and less education. However, if you believe in meritocracy and the American Dream the ways in which privilege reproduces itself should trouble you. There are talented kids in poor families who simply lack opportunity. Doesn’t this disturb you? If nothing is done to improve educational opportunities for those who are the most disadvantaged then all our schools will do is reproduce existing patterns of inequality, and the American Dream will be dead for sure.

I come from a family where neither of my parents graduated from high school. Yet, because they believed in education and instilled its importance in us, they managed to send all six of their kids to college, some of the best in the country. I was lucky because the combination of affirmative action and financial aid made that possible for me. It’s much harder today. The middle class is shrinking and college is becoming increasingly unaffordable. I believe we are a healthier nation when all people, regardless of their backgrounds, have access to opportunity. Education is critical to expanding opportunity. Don’t you agree?

Now some questions for you. Since you’ve taken up the mantle of conservatism, a label I didn’t put on you but you chose to embrace, why don’t your candidates for President offer anything besides vouchers and shutting down the US Department of Education on their education platforms? Where’s the creativity? If your team has any hope at all of winning over the mainstream they better wake up to the fact that most Americans actually like their unionized public schools. Real reform will take more than a few gimmicks (e.g. more charter schools, mayoral control, etc.), and it would help if conservatives took education seriously enough to offer ideas worthy of consideration for debate.

Now, let me back off a bit because I regard you as a reasonable person who does in fact offer lots of reasonable ideas (and occasionally even some good ones). But the team you’re on is in sorry shape and in desperate need for some rejuvenation.

To be fair, the same could be said of most Democrats who don’t really understand what’s happening in education and who also latch on to gimmicks and fads in the name of reform. That’s why we’ve got to do something to move the debate forward, away from the polarization and paralysis. I believe that the future of this country will be determined by what happens in our schools. That’s why we can’t leave it to the politicians to fix this.

The Editors

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