A Christmas Carol for our schools

A new round of the popular education board game, Poverty Matters, began last week with a New York Times op-ed
by Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske, titled, “Class Matters: Why Won’t We
Admit It?”  (Interestingly, the essay is really about poverty, not
class, and the paper that Ladd wrote on which the essay is based is
titled Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence.  See also Kathleen Porter-Magee’s The `Poverty Matters’ Trap from last July’s Flypaper.)

Ladd and Fiske’s essay was one of those broadsides that spreads
through the teacher ranks like a brush fire. I received my email copy
from one of our district’s veteran teachers, a hard-working, dedicated
woman who rarely misses an opportunity to remind me that she and her
colleagues would be doing a fine job were it not for unmotivated kids
and their irresponsible parents.  And Diane Ravitch weighed in
calling to mind, in tune with the season, the story of Scrooge and Tiny
Tim, offering to “update this tale for today’s school reformers” by
calling attention to Ladd and Fiske’s op-ed. (Ravitch says she uses
Ladd’s Education and Poverty paper in her post.)

What I don’t understand in all of this is who exactly is claiming
that class (or poverty or parents or kids) doesn’t matter?  Ladd and
Fiske spend most of their essay stating the obvious: that socio-economic
circumstance matters to education outcomes. The evidence that our
policymakers and reformers are in denial of this salient fact?

“No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to
high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that
disadvantaged students face.”

Huh?

NCLB actually forced schools to pay attention to their poor and
minority students by demanding disaggregated data; that looks to me like
quite the note.  And plenty of schools that I have visited got the
message.  But it’s not good enough for Ladd and Fiske, who argue that
the law should also have helped schools “address the challenges [poor
and minority students] carry with them into the classroom.”

Huh?

What happened to Title I?  What happened to free-and-reduced lunch?
What about the dozens of adequacy and equity lawsuits that have
redistributed billions of tax dollars to low-wealth schools?  And those
are just the heavily subsidized income distribution anti-poverty
programs directed at schools.  Outside of schools we have Medicaid,
Section 8 housing, WIC (Women, Infants and Children food program), food
stamps and a plethora of anti-poverty programs that should prove, if
nothing else, how misguided the cure-poverty first folks are.

As Porter-Magee wrote last July,

“Of course, the link between student achievement and socioeconomic
status is unmistakable….  But saying we need to fix poverty before we
can fix schools is like a doctor saying that he’s going to wait until
you get better before he treats you.  Education is the path out of
poverty, not the consolation prize offered to children whose families
have managed to dig their way out on their own.”

The only denial here is Ladd and Fiske’s: thirty years of “war on
poverty” (vis Lyndon Johnson, 1964) and stultifyingly little school
improvement to show for it. Several years ago I met a low-income housing
developer who told me, “I once believed that cleaning up a neighborhood
by building decent housing would improve education; it didn’t.”

Ladd and Fiske’s assertions are even more bizarre given the fact that
an increasing number of reformers – not to mention generations of
Catholic educators, to cite the best known of the private schools that
educate the poor – have proven over and over again that poverty is an
educational challenge for schools not a death sentence for their
students.

But Ladd and Fiske twist these successes into pretzels of logic:
  “If some schools can succeed, the argument goes, then it is reasonable
to expect all schools to.”  Who makes that argument?  Reasonable?  It
would be reasonable to expect such proven methods to work unless, of
course, you’re part of a determined status quo which believes that
hundred-page teacher contracts, tenure, single-salary wage schedules,
and last-in-first-out labor laws are also reasonable.

As with Ravitch’s “miracle” argument (“the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny,” she asserted in the Times last May),
Ladd and Fiske build mighty big straw men.  Bam! Slam! “[C]lose
scrutiny of charter school performance has shown that many of the
success stories have been limited to particular grades or subjects and
may be attributable to substantial outside financing or extraordinarily
long working hours on the part of teachers. The evidence does not
support the view that the few success stories can be scaled up to
address the needs of large populations of disadvantaged students.”

And what is the point?  If it isn’t going to work for everyone, it
shouldn’t be tried by anyone?  What exactly is preventing poor public
schools from receiving “substantial” financing (many of them, as we
know, already do) or hiring teachers who will work hard?

Speaking of the devil (that’s just a joke, friends, no demonizing
intended), Randi Weingarten is bringing the American Federation of
Teachers version of the anti-poverty campaign to the county where it all
began — McDowell County, West Virginia, the first place in the nation
to receive food stamps – in what the Washington Post‘s
Lyndsey Layton says is “an unusual effort to turn around a floundering
school system… by simultaneously tackling the social and economic
troubles of McDowell County.”  (Custer’s last stand comes to mind.)

Speaking from the same script as Ladd, Fiske, and Ravitch, Weingarten
tells Layton, that “I’ve gotten so angry in the last couple of years
when people who are new to our field decide that they alone, just by
exhorting, will help ensure that geography does not become destiny for
some kids….  A lot of the factors that confront kids — poverty, divorce,
health care — are real obstacles. People can pretend to ignore them
elsewhere, but no one can ignore those factors in McDowell.”

Pretend to ignore?

No matter how often  serious reformers repeat it – and I have heard it often the
status quo ante brigades that Ravitch and Ladd and Fiske and Weingarten
represent so well refuse to hear it: poverty matters, class matters,
parents matter, kids matter, and, what these new establishmentarians
keep denying, schools matter. No serious
reformer that I know of, as Ladd and Fiske assert, “den[ies] a
correlation [between poverty and educational achievement].”  In fact, it
is these reformers’ very embrace of those challenges that distinguishes
them from the new establishmentarians and allowed them to, yes, “beat
the odds.”

And even Scrooge got the message eventually – but it wasn’t the message Ravitch thinks is key to the Christmas Carol. The
biggest sin of Dickens’ famous anti-hero is his monocular view of the
world, his belief that caste and class were indeed so deeply imbedded in
a person’s character that charity did not matter. Scrooge was the
original determinist cum fatalist: since class matters there’s
no point in reaching out. Not until he was visited by the ghosts of
determinists past did he see the light:  Tiny Tim was redeemable! And in
that redemption Scrooge himself would be saved. The lesson here, I’m
afraid, is that schools, like Scrooge, can make a difference in
children’s lives. And it is my Christmas hope that teachers and
policymakers will be freed from their chains and see how much they can
do to improve schools and the educational opportunities of our most
needy children.

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