Thursday, July 01, 2004

Happy Canada Day, Makigirl.

I think I found the article in the Nation about standardized testing , that we were discussing by phone the other day. Or perhaps its actually this one. In either case, I'll try to address the problem a bit more eloquently than I did before.

Yes, we have an achievement gap in this country. Rich, white kids score better on standardized tests than do poor black kids. The problem is just as much class based as it is race based. Poor white kids don't do score as well on these tests as do rich whites, and rich blacks don't score as well as rich whites. Of course, this is America, so when we do deal with the problem, it is primarily in the racial sense. No one likes class warfare here.

There are several ways to look at the causes of the achievement gap and the solutions to it.

1. Racist -- Well, those black people just aren't as smart, anyway. Maybe there's a couple smart ones, like Colin Powell, but really we should stop sending our money to 'those people' in the cities. The smart ones will find a way out. I'm pulling my child out of public school and putting them into a Christian school. If he's smart, then he'll do well. If not, at least he'll get some good old fashioned southern values.

2. Conservative -- The education gap just proves that public education will never solve anything, if we even have a problem. We've been throwing money at education for years now, and it just doesn't work. We need to provide resources for kids who are truely smart, as measured by their test scores, but the other students should learn at least learn discipline, to read and write, and then get a job at Walmart or something. Private enterprise, aka vouchers and choice, will make the education system better for the smart kids and cheaper for the rest of us.

3. Centrist/liberal -- Public education isn't so good at enhancing opportunity, but it is still an inherently good idea. Some people do very well in the system, others do not. We need to find a way to make sure that all students receive the same opportunities to succeed, no matter where they come from. Defining local, state and national standards is one way to do this. Testing is one manner in which to determine the performance of school or child. As a voting public we should be able to examine the ability of a school to educate children. Education reform is a national problem.

4. Lefty -- Problems or successes in education are purely a result of the social setting of a particular school. Standardized testing only tests the income level of a student's family. Schools need to be improved by creating loving communities, where students can decide what they want to learn for themselves. Standards are bad, because we can't force anyone to learn anything, and the standards probably just reflect a white eurocentric viewpoint anyway.

As you can see, I made some strawmen/womyn. Sorry about that. I think I fit comfortably in #3, probably at about at 3.3. I believe that education is the single most important governmental priority. I belive that education should be placed as a 4th inalienable right for all citizens. Unfortunately, I don't believe that our current education system provides opportunites for most childrent to succeed. I believe in (high) standards for all children. I believe in a national solution to education that is based in community reform. I believe in school accountability, and that standardized testing is one way to measure a school's performance. I don't like high stakes testing for individual children, but I would be comfortable with some sort of high stakes portfolio assessment. I do believe that poverty and race have a negative impact on many children's education, but that shouldn't serve as an excuse for inaction. I believe that action must be taken now so that more students can begin learning now.

I agree with large chunks of both of the articles listed above especially the recommendataions in the first article, even though both authors would be much closer to catagory 4 than I (the first less so). But I have some real problems with the lefty critique of education reform.

The first article discusses at length a study done in the '60s comparing the test scores of blacks in poor southern schools to those in the north. They found that there really wasn't a difference in scores, and that the money being put into the northern schools wasn't doing anything (a bit of a stretch for a conclusion if you ask me). Regardless, this finding is typically used by objectors to education reform on both the right and left -- either "ed reform doesn't work, so let's not bother" or "ed reform doesn't work because the problem is so much bigger than what goes on in the school." However, this discounts more recent evidence that shows that high poverty and minority shcools can score as well and better than more affluent schools on state tests. Visit the Dispelling the Myth section on the Edtrust website for plenty of examples. When schools committ themselves to improving the performance of their students, they can, even in a relatively resource poor environment.

The lefty critique of ed reform is often put out by Richard Rothstein who is cited in the second article, but it is similar to the research done by the author in the first. Rothstein had a column in the NYT for awhile, where he presented research to back up this view. One reason I heard once, as to why Rothstein had a column was to make the wealthy people in Westchester feel good about themselves. If the problems in schools are so deeply rooted in the culture of poverty and race, then there's really not much we can do about it, right? If advocating for better teachers and better resournces in poor districts really doesn't do anything, then we can just worry about our own kids. His work also tends to play well with the rank and file of teacher's unions.

Race and poverty obviously play a factor in educational success, but that should not limit the choices we make about how to teach children. Rothstein, and at least the second author completely ignore the problem and are not able to offer any solutions when they attribute everything to race and poverty. Well, black people are black and are going to stay black, and rightly so, so let's start talking about things that we can control. Similarly, poor children are largely going to stay poor while they are in school. So what? When schools and teachers start chalking up students' bad preformance to their race and family environments, they stop teaching. I've heard too many teachers (and I don't know that many) resort to this argument in a classroom that they've lost control over. It is a complete abdication of responsibility. Now, I'm not saying that it's easy to teach in some schools in America, and it's largely not the fault of these teachers. They've been put in horrible situations by their principals and superintendants. But it is an abdication none the less, especially when we know that poor and minority students can learn and succeed.

I try to have a willful ignorance of the Rothstein argument when I think about education. Chalking stuff up to race and poverty is an easy trap for liberals. We must remember that there are real solutions, and the centrist/liberal position above is the only one that provides real solutions. Yes, there are grey areas in the position, and some solutions are better than others. Overall, however, I must take this position because there are children out there that need to learn if they are to make a living. Future engineers need to learn math. Future doctors need to learn how to read and write. Waiting for a community movement to end racial tension and build a free-thinking montescori type school may work in the neighborhoods of people who read the Nation, but it won't in most. We're talking about children who have a right to succeed, so we better start fixing their schools now.

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