In the Cupboard, In Plain View

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published their often-blogged article on the growing achievement gaps between rich and poor  children.  In contrast to otherwise careful analysis, the article ended with the unfortunate and widely criticized quote:

The problem is a puzzle, he [Douglas J. Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council] said. “No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare.”

Among those begging to differ are the scholars at the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College who recently released five white papers around the theme “Achievable and Affordable: Providing Comprehensive Educational Opportunity to Low-Income Students”.

Poor kids and their families are neither exotic nor inscrutable, and until we’ve begun to provide at least the minimal levels of support taken for granted in other Western countries, it’s intellectually and morally dishonest to pretend that their marginalization in US public schooling is a mystery beyond solution.

Parsing the Achievement Gap

Teachers Leaving By the End of the Year

My students commonly  insist that family support and family values are major determinants of success in school.  I can’t really argue with that.  We might hope that all kids go home to families who encourage them to  learn and to dream big.

Yet I ask them what would happen if, somehow, we did attain this. If all parents checked homework every day and left college brochures on their children’s  pillows, would children then experience equal outcomes in school?  A new report released by ETS, Parsing the Achievement GapII (pdf attached below) documents that relative to middle-class children and white children, low-income and minority children:

  • are less likely to be taught by certified teachers
  • are more likely to attend schools with high teacher absenteeism and teacher turn-over
  • learn in bigger classes
  • report issues of fear and safety in school
  • be taught by inexperienced teachers

Data is also reported on low birth rates, access to the internet, exposure to mercury and lead, and hunger.  Low-income and minority kids are at the losing end on all counts.

If learning is highly correlated with values, it would seem that we might do well to  value these children enough to invest in equitable childhoods.  Perhaps we could divert at least some of the energy that we collectively invest in fretting over undone homework worksheets to these bigger questions of basic  health and basic educational quality.

Next year, my students will be reading his report.

Parsing the Achievement Gap (pdf)

Will We Really?

The Forum for Education and Democracy is urging us to be part of moving forward from  the hopes of a new presidency to the hard work of creating change with their National Campaign for Public Education:

Sign their petition if you believe that:

  • Every Child Deserves as 21st Century Education
  • Every Community Deserves an Equal Chance
  • Every Child Deserves a Well Supported Teacher
  • Every Child Deserves High Quality Health Care

In Their Own Voices

Via a round-about route, I’ve come across this series of short movies created by Spanish speaking immigrant youth in California.

Created originally within a collaboration on Spanish language instruction between one of my favorite ed tech bloggers Ewan McIntosh and graduates of Marco Torres’ outstanding media program in the San Fernando Valley, these are remarkable, effective accounts of being a young immigrant in the U.S.

Besides all that I have to learn from these young people, there are many reasons that I like this project so much:  the production values are excellent, there is nothing like “first person” storytelling, and these stories are  readily disseminated to a broad audience (you can also subscribe via I-tunes).

I can think of multiple ways to use these in teaching: As examples of ways in which we learn much by listening, as examples of the power of effective video production, of the vital necessity of creating spaces for people to tell their own stories.

I want to find – -and to be part of — more projects like this.

The Tour de Test Scores

The Tour de France ended yesterday.  We’re huge Tour fans in my house.  We’re talking lycra-clad fans at 5:45 a.m., huddled around our TV to watch live.

So attribute this post to sleep deprivation and croissant overload.

Coming in last of the 145 finishers yesterday was Wim Vansevenant, a Belgian rider for the Silence- Lotto team.

And I assure you, gentle readers, that if 99.9% of you went out to test your meddle against the 145th ranked rider in this competition, he’d kick your butt.  Leave you in the dust.  Humble even the fittest of you.  Cause you deep pain.

And after 28 days of riding in one of the most grueling sporting events in the world, the distance between #1 and #145 was merely a matter of a few hours.  And Wim is and remains an incredibly talented cyclist.  And he’s ranked last today.

So I believe, deeply, that discourse about public education in the U.S. would be well-served if we moved far beyond the often dire ranking of the average kid in the U.S. with the average kid elsewhere, as in this PSA that’s getting a lot of press this week:

CEOs are not sitting around looking at the relative test scores of 15 year olds as they develop their strategic plans. Rankings tell us next to nothing.

But those CEOs may well be devising ways to increase profit margins by, say,  cutting employee medical benefits, leaving five year olds without medical care.

So speaking of Finland:  If we’re concerned about test scores, why are we not talking about high quality medical care for everyone; universal, high quality preschool; and a system of schooling that understands that a well prepared teacher with professional autonomy will take kids places that weeks and weeks  of testing every year never will?  Do we really believe that those things are inconsequential in the relatively high achievement of kids in Finland?

Good jobs moving to Finland, with a population lower than that of New York City?

Come on.

American “schools” are not failing our kids.   Poor kids in this country go to poor schools.   They go to school sick and hungry.  They go to school having been shut out of preschool that is the birthright of middle-class kids.

The Finns understood years ago that they couldn’t rely on schools to level playing fields rendered so uneven by  unemployment, illness, housing, and discrimination.

We think that we can get to #1 through school alone.

Wim Vansevenant only finished 145th, but he finished an unbelievably challenging race in no small measure because he had access to some of the best support available to professional athletes anywhere.  He had personalized medical care (just skip the doping smirks, ok?), a nutritionist,  a comfortable bed every night, sponsors who provided him with the very best equipment available regardless of his ability to pay for his bike himself.

You don’t finish the Tour on your own- even when you finish 145th.

So if we’re worried about the Finnish kids getting all the good jobs, we really shouldn’t expect poor five year olds in the U.S.  to navigate school essentially on their own either.  Because Finnish kids are enshrouded in layer upon layer of support as they make their way through school.

Much like professional cyclists.

Even the cyclists who come in dead last.

Because the rankings tell us next to nothing.

Know Your Place

I’m working on a collection of narratives written by education faculty from poor and working class backgrounds.    As I read these,  it’s impossible to miss the profound sense of place in many of the essays.

For the most part, we are not people who moved around a lot (from home to home, perhaps, but not from place to place), so in ways that may be unusual in these highly mobile times, most of us have grounded our experiences of class and education in particular geographies.

I was fascinated, then, to read of this Australian project in which literacy and architecture people in a university are working with poor and working class kids to “know their place” and to act within the spaces in which they live as they develop critical literacy skills.

As the authors of the book I’m editing and the authors of this project so vividly observe, critical pedagogies tied to  locality could be potent for poor and working class kids who may be uniquely immersed within particular social and physical spaces.

Thanks to the literacies log blog for the link to the project.