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

Failing Families, Failing Schools

Two studies on education and poverty are getting press this week.

In the first, the Educational Testing Service reports that a state’s performance on federal 8th grade reading tests can be accurately predicted by only four factors, none of which can be controlled by schools: The percentage of children living in single parent homes; the percentage of eighth graders who miss at least three days of school a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger read to by their parents every day; and the percentage of eighth graders reporting that they watch at least five hours of TV a day.

Reporting on the study, Michael Winerup of the NYT advises caution. The child watching hours of TV, for example, may have parents who have too little time at home because they are working two jobs. The study notes significant gaps in the quality of day care available to poor and privileged children. In other developed countries, the NYT article reminds us, mothers have paid leave after their babies are born.

It’s curious, then, that the title of study (The Family: America’s Smallest School”) and the NYT article’s headline, (“In Gaps in School, Weighing Family Life”), make no mention of these policy factors, as if this were all simply a matter of parenting style.

Meanwhile, the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment reports that students’ socio-economic background affects achievement more profoundly in the United States than in other high- achieving countries. Education Week ‘s (you may need to register ) Sean Cavanagh reports:

The exam’s results are not surprising, given research showing that the U.S. system tends to provide underprivileged students with less demanding curricula, poorer-quality teachers, and fewer educational resources than their peers in wealthier U.S. communities, said Ross Wiener, the vice president of program and policy for the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group in Washington.

“We give students less of everything that makes a difference in school,” Mr.Wiener said. If the public is inclined to believe “we’re doing as well as we can for these students,” he added, the international data “demonstrates we’re simply not.”

Both studies challenge NCLB’s assertions that we can close achievement gaps primarily within classrooms decontextualized from their communities.

Both negate NCLB’s promise that the best that we can offer children left behind by regressive social policies are underpaid teachers, toiling away in poorly-funded schools.


I’ve read academic analyses of the effects of No Child Left Behind; I’ve read political arguments for and against re-authorization of the bill. Every year, I read the ambiguously optimistic statements of local and state education officials as they explain annual scores to the public. I’ve listened to teachers grumble; I’ve commiserated with colleagues who struggle to convince our students that history and the arts still matter.

But I’d never choked up over anything NCLB related until reading Linda Perlstein’s Tested, an eloquent book about a year in the life of a low-income school with exceptionally high test scores. The teachers in this school are required to teach strictly to the script; the children write endless formulaic paragraphs. They’re subjected to frequent benchmark tests and practice tests and are sent home for the summer with fat notebooks full of yet more test prep worksheets. For their tenacity in putting up with all of this, they come to expect that they’ll be rewarded with pop tarts, pizza and popcorn. They beg to be allowed access to the science kits in the back of the room, but science is never included in the detailed, jargonistic learning objectives that teachers must write on the board each day.

For generations, we relegated poor children to a mindless curriculum that prepared them for little of value in the world beyond low-wage jobs.

Public celebrations of test scores attained only by relegating these children to more of the same are insidious at best. When these children stumble in an adult world in which their skill at formulaic writing on contrived topics holds no value whatsoever, they, of course will blamed for their own persistent poverty. Their test scores prove, after all, that the schools have done their part.

It’s an incredibly disturbing and important book.

Perlstein, L. (2007). Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade. New York: Henry Holt.

Class in Everyday Life

In The Moral Significance of Class, Andrew Sayer writes:

Condescension, deference, shame, guilt, envy, resentment, arrogance, contempt, fear and mistrust, or simply mutual incomprehension and avoidance, typify relations between people of different classes. Some people may be, or want to be, respectful, considerate, and warm to individuals from other classes, but the inequalities themselves are likely to frustrate their attempts by tainting them with suspicions of condescension, disrespect, or unwanted familiarity.

Clearly, more stands in the way of poor and working class kids than their test scores. When peer relationships form along class lines, and when teachers act as representatives of the middle class, can teachers name the implicit tensions, the wariness, the incomprehension for they are? Can teachers become credible to kids from backgrounds very different from their own without first acknowledging the social distances from which teachers and kids view each other across class boundaries?

Why getting to preschool in a limo matters (but being silly doesn’t)

On his EarlyStories blog, Richard Lee Colvin also wrote about the NYT chauffeur-driven preschoolers story , and he asks a fair question:

This is a variant on a story that appears frequently in the New York media. Striving, image-conscious, nouveau-riche Manhattanites do whatever they can to get into a handful of expensive preschools because they think the schools will guarantee their kids a quick-trip to the Ivy League and we make them look silly in the bargain. Old story. Easy target. But beyond its obvious entertainment value, does it matter?

Some of the reasons that I think that this story matters (beyond the considerable entertainment value, of course):

  1. Stories like this are a reminder of a major flaw in the logic of NCLB: Parents like this will never stand still while other kids catch up to their kids. If all poor and working-class kids aced every standardized test thrown at them this year, these parents would simply find ways to move the bar. And then they’d hire drivers to get their kids to the other side of that bar.
  2. These kids are learning who they are in the world. They are learning (consciously or not, and not is worse) that they deserve
    • to be buffered from contact with people not like them by enormous personal and public space,
    • to have adults defer to them,
    • to be exempted from silly rules that were made for other people,
    • to consume as much fossil fuel on one preschool run as an entire village in African consumes in a month
    • to be very comfortable even when traversing only a few blocks to preschool.
  3. The kids heading for other schools, stuck behind the idling limos on public transportation, are learning (consciously or not, and not is much worse) their own lessons about what kids like them deserve.
  4. There is social drama going on all around the idling limos on the busy streets. The sanitation workers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, and delivery people are thinking about their own kids as they’re stuck in traffic. As they dream the dreams of parents, they think about the enormous social distance that their kids would have to travel to be within shouting distance of a level playing field with the kids stepping out of the limos. From days and weeks of such encounters, aspirations are shaped.
  5. The kids of the sanitation workers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, and delivery people are probably going to be working for the kids in the limos some day. At the very least, the kids in the limos will someday be called upon to to sit on policy advisory boards, foundations, and university boards. They’ll be major contributors to the political candidates of their choice. Other peoples’ kids are going to live under their influence.
  6. And everyone on the block is learning something about the inevitability of all of this.

Are these parents acting silly? You bet. But acting silly doesn’t seem to really matter.