Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Filling the Vaccuum

I wrote on Monday about the book Gang Leader for a Day and how a power vaccuum in the projects creates an opportunity for gangs and powerful (though perhaps immoral) tenant leaders to step in and fill the void. This contributes to a further breakdown of the traditional power structure which creates more opportunities for these alternative groups to increase their power.

This is no small problem. Researchers from New York University have found that students who live in public housing fare worse in school than their counterparts who live outside of public housing, even when factors like race and economics are figured into the equation. Read the book and it's not hard to see why.

The question about how to fix it is obviously much more difficult than identifying the problem. In fact, it would probably take a master's level dissertation to really get to the heart of it. Here's my version in a paragraph.

Just like a castle can't have two kings, a housing project can't have two true authorities. Part of the reasons that gangs and gang life is so prevalent in the projects is that the people tolerate them, not so much because they approve of the crack trade (the book was researched in the 1990s), but because the gangs provide a level of stability by regulating the activities - both legal and illegal - that take place in the buildings. That regulation provides a kind of order that would otherwise be lacking. However, if that order were to come from police, the housing authority, etc. (the way it does in other, more affluent neighborhoods), the tolerance for gang activity declines. In doing so, the power of the gang declines which provides a greater foothold for the traditional power structures to assert themselves.

Simple enough on paper, at least. Of course, actually doing it is where the trouble begins.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Life in the Projects

I just finished reading an incredible new book that I'm officially recommending to everyone I know who is interested in urban poverty. The book is called Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. In the book, Sudhir Venkatesh describes the years he spent hanging out in the Chicago projects with gang members, crack dealers, prostitutes, and people just trying to get by. The book isn't filled with great writing, but it's better than it had to be given how interesting and compelling the story is. I'll be sharing some of my insights on the book throughout the week, but in the meantime, I'd really recommend checking it out.

The biggest point that struck me about the book is how the absence of traditional power structures affects all life in the project. Out in the suburbs where Venkatesh and I grew up, there are the traditional models of authority: parents, police, teachers, etc. For a variety of reasons, those figures are largely absent from life in the projects. Into their places slide alternative power structures like the gangs.

The gangs as they are presented in the book are not as purely bad as they might otherwise be assumed to be. Yes, they sell crack and engage in drive-bys. Yes, they encourage the various forms of illegality that seem to thrive in the projects. But they also act as the defacto landlord, police, and general regulators of life in the projects. Their presence acts as a stabilizing force in the projects. The irony is, of course, that it is the gang's illegal activities that act to destabilize things in the first place.

The main idea I'm trying to get across here is that nature abhors a vaccuum. Where there is a power vaccuum left by inefficient government or policing, something else will step in to fill those roles. That it has been gangs in these low-income ghetto communities speaks to the very clear need to ensure that the kinds of services taken for granted by more affluent citizens are at least available to those on the other end of the social spectrum.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Cost of the Gap

In case you weren't compelled by the moral issues involved in closing the achievement gap, there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that it makes some economic sense too. A recent report from McKinsey & Company has garnered a certain amount of headlines by proclaiming that the effects of the achievement gap are akin to a "permanent national recession."

The gist is that our GDP is $1.3 to $2.3 trillion lower than it would be if we closed the achievement gap. That's $3 - $5 billion a day (or about one Michael Bloomberg a week). Pretty stiff stuff.

The thing is, the report doesn't offer any clues as to how to solve the problems facing education, only saying that they should be solved. Well, duh. It's like going to the doctor with a headache, finding out you have a brain tumor, and then being asked to leave without being told what you can do about it. I guess it's good to know, but that's not necessarily helpful.

Maybe this is the symbolism that Eduwonk has been looking for. The image or idea that finally compels people to act. Maybe it will be that. More likely, it will be more fuel for every group to use to promote their own ideas for improving education (me included).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Get Them Early

A University of Illinois study recently found that students who take advanced level math classes in middle school are more likely to take advanced level math classes in high school. The researchers then argue that closing the achievement gap in high school can be done by increasing the number of students taking advanced math in middle school.

But why stop there? I'll bet that the number of kids taking advanced math in middle school correlates to the level of math instruction in elementary school. This study (unless I'm missing something) just seems to be saying that the achievement gap doesn't start in high school. It seems to be saying that gaps that exist in middle school carry over into high school.

I guess it's nice to have the data to back it up, but this seems like pretty low-level stuff to me.

Similarly, another study in California found that assessing college readiness in high school, and helping those who are behind, will help reduce the need for remedial classes when those students get to college. Again, this boils down to showing the need to help kids before the problem really develops.

So why wait until the junior year of high school? Or why wait until middle school (which we now know affects how kids do in high school)? Why don't we start at the very beginning when the kids first get to school or even before that?

The best way to close the achievement gap is to prevent one from ever opening. We're going to need to start way before middle school if that's our goal.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Remembering Columbine

Today is the 10 year anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. The day will, I'm sure, be marked by testimonials and "how far we've come" features in papers all over the country. Still, I don't know that any of those tributes are really going to capture what happened.

According to USA Today, half of children in schools now weren't even born when the actual shooting happened. To them, lockdown drills and the like are just what you do at school. Kind of like taking your shoes off at the airport.

I was a high school sophomore when the shootings happened and I remember that week very clearly. It was clear that something very different had happened than what had come before. In a lot of ways it broke the idea that schools were a safe place where nothing truly bad could happen.

The irony, of course, is that students in low-income, urban ghetto schools could have told you that already. The effect of Columbine was to shake the upper middle class idea of what schools were or could be. In areas where gang life was rampant, I can't think that it did much shaking at all.

In its own way, Columbine was 9/11 before there was 9/11. It was a singular, violent event that changed how we viewed an otherwise innocuous activity. And like taking our shoes off at the airport, its effects are ingrained into how we proceed into the future.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Pre-Emptive Accountability

Every so often, it's good to hear some good news about education in this country. That's why it was great to hear about the success that Oregon has had in reducing its dropout rate and increasing the number of high school graduates. The state is now up to an 84% graduation rate while it only has a 3.7% dropout rate. (And yes, that leaves about 12% missing. I don't know what the deal with them is.)

As always, though, it's not enough to celebrate success or condemn failure - we need to look at why. That's what's going to help us reproduce the results we're seeing in Oregon.

The article isn't terribly specific on what's changed, but there's a few hints. The accountability director for the state education department credits better tracking of students and increased interventions for the ones who are in danger of dropping out.

What an obvious idea. Find the kids who are at risk and then help them achieve before they reach a crisis stage. It's so simple that it's brilliant. And effective too, as it turns out. It's a little pre-emptive accountability.

It kind of makes you wonder why we don't do this kind of thing more often. It seems like whenever you hear about accountability, it's in a punitive context (closing schools, holding kids back in a grade, etc.) and not in looking at how to help ahead of time. When a teacher or a school system issues a failing grade, it's a failure for the teacher/system too.

If we're serious about real accountability, let's start being a little proactive rather than just swooping in like an avenging angel after it's too late.

BONUS: According to the article, graduation rates tend to rise as the economy declines. Maybe Bush was focused on being the education president after all.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Go Public Schools

Adding more fuel to the school choice debate is a recent study of the Philadelphia school system which has been experimenting over the last several years with turning over public schools to private operators. I'm not that familiar with the program, but it seems to be a kind of beefed up version of the charter system we have in New York. Anyway, after years of this program, the study has found that the traditional public schools outperformed the privately-managed schools on test scores and in terms of closing the achievement gap.

With information like that, I wonder if we'll start hearing arguments about how we should turn over private schools to public control.

As I would say if the results were reversed, I find it hard to believe that the governance structure of these schools matters more than what actually happens in the classrooms. That just doesn't make sense to me. So the real question is not why don't we make every school in Philadelphia a government-operated public school? The question is, what did the public schools do that made them more effective in this instance? Does it have to do with curriculum, class sizes, teacher preparation, social services, or something else entirely? To my mind, the difference in achievement matters less than what causes the difference. Because once we find that out, we can focus on what works and eliminate what doesn't. Then it won't matter who's running the schools.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Root of the Matter

Everyone seems to acknowledge that there's a crisis in education, but good luck finding people who can agree on what the exact cause of that crisis is and what we should do about it. This lack of unity is what's keeping a real movement for educational reform from developing. However, that doesn't keep us from trying.

Jonathan Kozol recently spoke in Baltimore. He, of course, has his own notions on the problems. To his way of thinking, the problem with schools is that they have "re-segregated" in the years since Brown v. Board of Education. Now it's white kids going to white schools and black kids going to black schools. According to Kozol, this sends the message that "you have been sequestered in this institution so you will not contaminate the education of white people."

I don't know that I'm in the position to speak to the mindset of inner city youth in Baltimore, but I find it hard to believe that this is the sole cause of the problems facing our schools. After all, if all the schools were good it wouldn't much matter. (That's not to say that segregation is good or even acceptable, only that if every school in the country was good, then even kids attending schools in the inner city would be receiving a quality education.) The main problem is not that schools are segregated, it's that those inner city schools where black kids tend to go aren't very good.

So what causes that?

The latest fad is to blame the unions for defending the status quo and resisting change and generally limiting educational progress. But as Diane Ravitch points out, union presence hasn't hurt student achievement in wealthy suburbs or in those countries that we're always being told score better than us on international tests. So that whole argument seems a little spurious.

So what causes the problems?

When we want to get to the roots of the problems in urban education, we need to look at the school itself, but also beyond the school. We have to look at what is wrong in our ghettos as a whole. The problems in our schools reflect the problems in those communities and vice versa. Until we start working on both sides of that problem and create a virtuous (rather than vicious) cycle, we aren't going to get very far no matter who we blame.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Reality Based Education

Add another chapter to the book of ideology trumping actual results. In Boston, the voters approved a law that requires that students be taught all classes in English rather than allowing some subjects to be taught in the native language of non-English speakers (who make up 38% of the school system). The idea behind this was, presumably, that we speak English in this country so those kids had better suck it up and learn the language the way our great, great grandparents did.

Turns out that kids these days aren’t so good at sucking it up. According to a report by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the Center for Collaborative Education, since that law passed the dropout rate has doubled for ELLs in the system.

That’s a truly incredible figure. It also speaks to the utter failure of this approach to teaching these students.

I’m no expert in the theory and practice of teaching English as a second language, so I can’t say I know all the answers here. But it sure seems to me to be more likely that kids will succeed if they’re in school than if they drop out of school.

We can argue all we want about how kids these days need to tough it out and do things the way we’ve always done them in this country. And I know that immersion is considered a pretty effective way to learn a language. But the results of this program speak to failure, not success. Working to maintain a system that’s failing is simply ludicrous. We need to look at what actually helps kids learn, not what should help kids learn.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Symbols and Solutions

Eduwonk Andrew Rotheram had a really interesting piece in last week's U.S. News and World Report. His argument is that what the education reform movement is missing is a compelling use of symbols that will galvanize people into action. Just as the civil rights movement made use of biblical imagery contrasted with the injustices of the Jim Crow south, so too must education find a way to reach out to people to capture their attention and interest. At least, so goes the argument.

I certainly see where he's coming from on this. Words have power and once an image of injustice becomes lodged into the collective consciousness (especially an injustice as vast in scope and consequence as the problems facing urban education) it seems logical that action would follow. Logical, yes, but I don't know if it's correct. Respectfully, I think I have to disagree.

The fact is that people know education is a problem. If anything, the average citizen may even be overestimating the scope of the problem by thinking that the entire system is failing all kids rather than that certain elements of the system are spectacularly failing particular kids. People get that education is a problem that needs to be resolved. We can throw as many verbal images of half-filled graduations as we want, but it's not going to surprise anyone. People get it.

What they don't get is what to do next. In fact, no one really seems sure what to do next. And that's why we have yet to see a single, powerful movement for education reform. We have charter school advocates, smaller class size advocates, teacher quality advocates, accountability advocates, voucher advocates, social services advocates, and more. Each set pulls in a slightly different direction. Since there's no clear consensus on where we go next, there's no clear movement to get us there.

The problem isn't a lack of symbolism to underscore the situation. The problem is that we don't know yet how to fix it.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Charters Aren't the Answer

In honor of today's City Council hearing on charter school expansion in New York City, I'd like to take a look at Jay Matthews' column from last week. In his column, Matthews responds to several parents who took exception to his claim from a previous column that the DC voucher program should not be renewed. He nails that critique right on the head. He says that voucher schools only help an incredibly small portion of kids and that if we actually want to help improve the school system we need to look at some larger scope reforms. As he writes:

"... if you transfer students from a school with low standards to a school with high standards, they learn more. We have plenty of research showing this. So why not focus our efforts on creating more public schools with high standards, rather than hoping private schools will fill that role?"

That last line in particular is exactly what we should be looking to do. But then Matthews says that the way to get there is charter schools. WHAT?

Did he just finish writing that if we want to improve education we need to be looking at ways to raise standards and levels of achievement at all public schools rather than focus on a narrow, specialized program that only reaches a small percentage of the school population? Is that not what he was saying? Remember that even with all the laudatory press that charter schools like KIPP receive, they still only serve a microscopic percentage of the school population in the cities they operate. So we could go around trying to figure out how to open 5,000 new KIPP schools. Or we could look at the schools we have and find ways to bring them up to KIPP standards.

I've said this over and over again. The solution is not pull certain kids out of one school system and put them into another; it's to make sure that the schools we have are the best possible schools. That means focusing on reducing class sizes, improving teacher training and professional development, and ensuring that kids' basic needs are being met even if they live in underserved communities. If we do that we won't need to spend any more time hoping that private or charter schools will magically save our children.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Educational Malpractice?

Over at Teacher Magazine, they're in the midst of a pretty serious debate about whether or not test prep constitutes educational malpractice. The arguments probably aren't anything you haven't heard before. They argue that test prep limits the curriculum and removes the possibilities for innovative, student-centered curriculum. Again, this is hardly a groundbreaking argument.

First, it depends on whether you're teaching kids to succeed on the test or game the test. In all honesty, the test prep that I'm familiar with is a little of both. You cover the content and skills that are going to be tested (like how to identify a main idea), but you also teach little tricks about how to eliminate answers from a multiple choice format. Both of these lessons are useful on a test, but only one is useful when the test is done.

The real answer, of course, is that the value of teaching to the test depends entirely on the value of the test itself. If your end goal is an assessment that fully gauges student learning and achievement across a broad range of ideas and abilities, then by all means, teach to the test.

However, if you're looking at another field of endless bubble answers, gearing every element of your curriculum toward that product is probably not going to benefit your students much after they finish with the bubbles (if it even helps them there).

Assuming that test prep is here to stay (for at least as long as we have high stakes tests), we have to be extra vigilant about what kinds of tests we're giving. That's why it was so troubling to read (via Gotham Schools) that there's a proposal being floated to scrap the writing portion of next year's English test in New York. The reason, of course, has nothing to do with what's best for learning students, but rather what makes the test easier to grade. Seriously. I mean, it's bad enough that music, art, science, and history don't appear on the tests. But writing? Now that would constitute educational malpractice.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Money Isn't Free

Repeat after me: Bailout and stimulus money is not free. It seems like every day we hear about another group that realizes that the government doesn't just hand out billions of dollars without any expectations in return. Nor should they, I might add. I'm not really sure what these executives were expecting. When you accept so much money from the government, of course it's going to expect something from you in return. That's just how the world works. So now banks are trying to pay back their bailout money as quickly as possible so they aren't subject to the responsibilities that come with taking all that cash. You'd think the message would have spread. But now. We're also seeing it in how states are using their education money.

Apparently Secretary Duncan has had to issue some pretty stern warnings to states that they'd better use their education money on, well, education. And those that don't or don't use the money in a way that conforms to the goals of the Obama administration are at risk of not getting any more stimulus money for education.

Naturally, governors are shocked - shocked! - that this would be the case. But let's get real. The government doesn't (and shouldn't) just give away money and hope for the best. There have to be some measures in place to ensure that the money is used appropriately. That means that the government needs to set some standards. Whether we agree with those standards once they're set is, of course, open for debate (NCLB comes to mind), but it's irrational to argue with the notion that when the government pays the bill, the government gets to call the tune.

That's one of the big arguments for Barry Goldwater style conservativism. I see it more as a reminder for the buyer to beware. No one gives money away for free. Make sure that what you're giving for the money is worth it.