Monday, May 11, 2009

Beyond Miracles

David Brooks has officially gotten under my skin. He's irritated me before, but now, he's really done it. If he's going to insist on writing about education, he should at least figure out what he's talking about before his next column.

What's sent me into a tizzy here is his column from last Thursday on The Harlem Miracle, by which he means the Harlem Children's Zone. Apparently, Brooks got his hands on a study showing that students who entered the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy in 6th grade made huge gains in math by the time they were in eighth grade. The gains are big enough to prompt Brooks to write things like, "In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students." Pretty big talk.

So what does Brooks think the take-away from all this is? Naturally, it's that his ideas about "no excuses" schools are correct. He thinks that this shows that the "reformers" (a word he limits exclusively to hard line idealocrats) are correct and all those other people who want things like smaller class sizes, better teachers, increased social investment (in other words, the "status quo" crowd) are wrong.

First of all, let's set aside for the moment the fact that the numbers showing this overwhelming success aren't quite as overwhelmingly positive as Brooks seems to think. (Thanks to skoolboy at Gotham Schools for pointing this out.) In fact, even with his own internal logic, it's clear that Brooks doesn't know what he's talking about.

Brooks writes: "Some experts, mostly surrounding the education establishment, argue that schools alone can’t produce big changes. The problems are in society, and you have to work on broader issues like economic inequality. Reformers, on the other hand, have argued that school-based approaches can produce big results. The Harlem Children’s Zone results suggest the reformers are right." (Got to love the way he sets reformers against those "surrounding the educational establishment.") Then he recommends that people read Whatever It Takes to learn more.

Had Brooks himself actually read Whatevere It Takes, he would know that the Harlem Children's Zone doesn't try to leverage all of its change solely from the school. In fact, a huge chunk of the HCZ model is focused on the kinds of "broader issues" that "reformers" have now refuted. Is it possible that the New York Times is letting Brooks write about things that he clearly doesn't understand? I get that Brooks is a columnist, not an investigative reporter, but come on. Do some research.

Also, Roland Fryer, who Brooks credits as the one who got the mental ball rolling for him, is on my annoying list too. The last we saw of Fryer, he was promoting a plan that was going to pay students for earning good grades. That was the miracle silver bullet that was going to solve all of education's problems. Except that it didn't work. So now we're looking at the Harlem Children's Zone as the miracle that has "changed [his] scientific life."

I don't object to the idea that Fryer is constantly looking for the next best thing and I applaud his willingness to keep moving when things don't work and try to find something that does. The lack of constancy doesn't bother me. What does bother me is that each new policy is THE ONE that's going to fix everything. The problems facing education are inextricably linked with the problems of poverty, race, and societal breakdown in ghetto communities. Expecting to find a silver bullet is a little bit silly. Telling people like David Brooks that you've found one is almost harmful.

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