The ends of education reform

Diane
Ravitch’s New York Times op-ed last week stuck in the craw of many a
reformer, including Arne Duncan himself. What really got peoples’
goats were Ravitch’s “straw man” arguments: that reformers say poverty doesn’t
matter, or that they only care about gains in student achievement. In a
rebuttal last week, Jonathan Alter argued: “No education reformer has
ever challenged the idea that conditions in the home and in the larger society
are hugely important. They merely insist that such conditions not be used as an
excuse for inaction.”

That
would be swell. But it’s not exactly true. Remember the old adage, actions
speak louder than words? The No Child Left Behind act is still the law of the
land, and it most definitely rests on the principle that poverty is “no excuse”
for low achievement. And it absolutely punishes schools for bad test scores alone. Diane is on firm ground
when she writes:

Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible,
given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on
academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right
combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement.
Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an
excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.

Rather
than get defensive at Diane’s defeatism, we reformers should clarify the ends
that education reform can achieve. If not 100 percent proficiency, then
what?

Try
this exercise. This fall, about 1 million very poor children will enroll in
Kindergarten in the U.S. The vast majority of them will live in single-parent
families headed by women in their late teens or early twenties. Most of their
mothers will have dropped out of high school; most of their fathers are nowhere
to be seen. Most live in urban or rural communities hit hard by the recession,
places where unemployment, addiction, and violence are all too commonplace.

Rather than get defensive at Diane’s defeatism, we reformers should clarify the ends that education reform can achieve.

 
   
 

Still,
not everything is bleak. Almost all of these children participated in some form
of pre-school program, though the quality and effectiveness varied
dramatically. Many were in Head Start; others in church-based or
community-based programs. They generally have access to basic health-care and,
thanks to food stamps, basic nutrition.

Now,
try to “see like a state” and play policymaker. When designing
a school accountability system, what should its objectives be with respect to
these 1 million tykes? On one extreme, you might expect them all to be
catapulted into the middle class between the ages of five and twenty-two.
First, the K-12 system should prepare them for the rigors of a four-year-college
experience, and then higher education should get them across the finish line
and into the Promised Land. No excuses!

On
the other extreme, you might merely expect them to do no worse than their own mothers
did. You don’t want to see the graduation rate go down, or test scores fall, or
teen pregnancy rates climb. But you accept that, as long as poverty remains
entrenched, a flat line on student outcomes is all we can expect.

I
would bet that your own views fall somewhere in between. You acknowledge—privately
at least—that it’s unrealistic to expect all kids growing up in poverty
to be able to “beat the odds” and graduate from college. (That’s why they’re called
“odds.”) You recognize that, for most middle-class families, the path from
poverty to prosperity has been a multi-generational journey. (And don’t
overlook how many middle-class kids don’t graduate from college!)

But
you also believe in the promise of social mobility, and can point to examples
of schools—even mediocre ones—that have helped (at least) some kids
escape the ghetto or the barrio or the reservation. To accept the status quo is
to accept perpetual injustice and inequality.

So
let’s get specific. Assuming that these 1 million kids remain poor over the
next twelve years, what outcomes would indicate “success” for education reform?
Right now the high school graduation rate in poor districts hovers around 50
percent. What if we moved it to 60 percent—without lowering graduation
standards? Right now the NAEP reading proficiency rate for the most
disadvantaged twelfth graders (those whose parents dropped out of high school)
is 17 percent. What if we moved that to 25 percent? The same rate for math is 8
percent. What if we moved that to 15 percent?

To
my eye, these are stretch goals—challenging but attainable. Yet to adopt them
would mean to expect about 400,000 of this new crop of kindergarteners not to
graduate from high school thirteen years on. And of the 600,000 that do
graduate, we would expect only 150,000 to reach proficiency in reading (25
percent) and just 90,000 of them to be proficient in math (15 percent).

90,000
out of 1 million doesn’t sound so good, but without improving our graduation or
proficiency rates for these children, we’d only be talking about 40,000 kids.
So these modest improvements would mean more than twice as many poor children
making it—9 percent instead of 4 percent.

And
what about the other 91 percent of our bumptious new kindergarteners? We don’t
want to write them off, so what goals would be appropriate for them? Getting
more of them to the “basic” level on NAEP? Preparing them for decent jobs
instead of the lowest-paid kinds? Driving down the teen pregnancy rate?
Lowering the incarceration rate?

Is
this making you uncomfortable? Good. If we are to get beyond the “100 percent
proficiency” or “all students college and career ready” rhetoric, these are the
conversations we need to have. And if we’re not willing to do so, don’t
complain when Diane Ravitch and her armies of angry teachers say that we are
asking them to perform miracles.

This piece originally
appeared
(in a slightly different format) on
Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to
Flypaper,
click here.

More By Author