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.

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