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Posted at 12:15 PM ET, 01/10/2011

Reconciliation in the school reform war

By Kevin Huffman

Robert Samuelson lays out the saner arguments against aggressive school reform in today's Post.

Samuelson's column boils down to three basic pieces, all of which are true:

1. The case that American kids are failing by international standards is overstated.

2. When you disaggregate by race, American kids do fairly well -- i.e. our Asian kids do about as well as most Asian kids in the world, our white kids do about as well as most white kids. And our black and Hispanic kids lag far behind.

3. The factor that is most predictive of student outcomes is their parents' educational attainment.

I can't disagree with any of these points. But as he leverages this into a "therefore, we shouldn't expect our schools to do better," Samuelson's case doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

First, and most importantly, it's crazy to segregate our results by race to support a conclusion that American schools are pretty good. In the international marketplace, I'm quite sure we won't be able to get a racial handicap when we compete in the future. Try this one on for size: "Hey, I know the Chinese are building better bio-tech companies than we are, but our white scientists are on par with white scientists anywhere!"

And if you don't like that argument, how do you feel about writing off (or at least down) the over one-fourth of kids who are brown and black until some future date when we fix the legacies of poverty and racism? Should we tell school administrators, "I'm sure if your kids were white instead of Latino, you would be getting better results"?

I believe in American exceptionalism -- a different kind, perhaps, than the one you hear about on Fox News. I believe that America is exceptional because we actually believe that all kids -- no matter what color their skin, no matter how poor, no matter their origin -- can succeed if they work hard and get a fair shake. Other less pluralistic countries mouth these beliefs, but America is the place that tries to live them. Therefore, our schools don't get a pass when results segregate by race. Sorry.

Furthermore, within this country, entire districts and states are dramatically outperforming their counterparts in educating similar children. When you look at NAEP data (a national standardized test that schools do not prepare for -- in short, a legitimate benchmark), the disparities are shocking. African American and Hispanic kids in Texas are performing one to two grade levels higher than African American and Hispanic kids in California. On the 2007 NAEP, low-income black students in New York City were two full grade levels higher than low-income black students in Washington. Two years! It's not just about race; it's not just about income; it's not just about parents: it's about the system we choose to build (and make excuses about when we don't build).

Samuelson joins a vocal anti-reform movement in propagating the idea that trying to get better results through schools is a failed idea. We need to solve problems at home first. As he puts it:

For half a century, successive waves of "school reform" have made only modest headway against these obstacles. It's an open question whether the present "reform" agenda, with its emphasis on teacher accountability, will do better. What we face is not an engineering problem; it's overcoming the legacy of history and culture.

What's so sad about the current national education debate is the way it has metastasized into almost comically dichotomous and failed viewpoints. Either we blame the schools and fix them, or we blame poverty and families (and, uh -- well, you won't hear a lot of good ideas for fixes here). Let me try reconciliation in four sentences.

When you disaggregate by race, American schools are fairly decent compared to other countries. American schools have a massive achievement gap by race. Because some teachers, schools, districts and states get much better results with similarly situated students, it is demonstrably true that American schools could and, therefore, should be better. We put an enormous burden on schools, which we must lessen by doing more to strengthen the social safety net for poor kids.

By Kevin Huffman  | January 10, 2011; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Huffman  | Tags:  Kevin Huffman  
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From Eduwonk:

Average score, reading literacy, PISA, 2009:
[United States, Asian students 541]
Korea 539
Finland 536
[United States, white students 525]
Canada 524
New Zealand 521
Japan 520
Australia 515
Netherlands 508
Belgium 506
Norway 503
Estonia 501
Switzerland 501
Poland 500
Iceland 500
United States (overall) 500
Sweden 497
Germany 497
Ireland 496
France 496
Denmark 495
United Kingdom 494
Hungary 494
OECD average 493
Portugal 489
Italy 486
Slovenia 483
Greece 483
Spain 481
Czech Republic 478
Slovak Republic 477
Israel 474
Luxembourg 472
Austria 470
[United States, Hispanic students 466]
Turkey 464
Chile 449
[United States, black students 441]
Mexico 425

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | January 10, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

so what? No age gap is too wide if you both feel so right.We don't care about the social "norm" but chemistry. Many couples with age gap work out fine and get alone splendidly. We celebrate the age gap love and May-December romance. Check out if you are interested in ageless relationships..

Posted by: sasago | January 11, 2011 3:15 AM | Report abuse

It seems that Mr. Huffman misrepresents Mr. Samuelson's point and then ends with a conclusion very similar to what Mr. Samuelson himself suggested and which anyone remotely close to American public education for any length of time knows: there is plenty of blame to go around for the weaknesses of American public education.

Posted by: sharonm1 | January 11, 2011 8:38 AM | Report abuse

Well I think it is good to focus on all American schools for reform.
However, it seems to me that we are focusing on making our better students even better to bring up the average. And that is good but it does not address improving the performance of Blacks and Hispanics. In ten years Hispanics will make up 25-30% of our high school graduates and their educational needs must be addressed.
To try to mask the fact that Black kids grow up in environmments that in many cases are anti-educational achievement is criminal. The problem with the schools in DC is the Black kids are growing up in a complete dysfunctional society. 70% of the kids live without a father in the house.
Kids in Loudoun schools must spend at least two hours doing homework each evening. Working parents hire tutors. Each child has a performance reccord and it is reviewed with parents on a regular basis.
We need to target the schools that are under performing across the nation and focus on them more and more. Do not pretend that performance is an equal problem in each and every town and city and school.
Deal with reality and do it now.
Finally, this "teach to test" is an old industrial approach which Horace Mann brought out of Germany more than 150 years ago. What worked in Germany in the industrial age does not apply today. Not in German which has a more homogenous population.
Manufacturing companies do not have old fashioned assembly lines with industrial engineers clocking each and every worker.
The world has changed and the USA better wake up and get into the 21st Century.
Bush's no child left behind is exactly what Obama is doing test the school like assembly lines.
We need smaller classes for our worst schools so kids can get individual attention that they do not get at home.
DC spends twice what Fairfax spends per pupil and has a totally dysfuntional school system.
The new mayor Gray refers to the public schools in DC as the PSs, the PSs, the PSs etc. It is slang for public schools. Why does he not say our schools?
Oh well we are no closer under Obama than under Bush and Samuelson is at least willing to take the data apart and analize it with focus.
But will anyone else do it?

Posted by: fd09102 | January 11, 2011 6:52 PM | Report abuse

What a vile disgusting woman.

Posted by: ExConservative | January 12, 2011 10:14 AM | Report abuse

20 States legally allow Physical/Corporal Punishment, where school employees hit children with wooden boards to deliberately inflict physical pain as punishment in 21st Century American classrooms! Schoolchildren are the ONLY GROUP OF PEOPLE LEGALLY SUBJECTED TO PHYSICAL PAIN AS PUNISHMENT! Some "School Paddling States" have "Teacher Immunity Laws" to protect school employees from criminal/civil action! There is no argument in support of physical/corporal punishment of children in schools and our nation's most trusted Children's Health and Education Organizations have issued Official Position Statements Opposing Corporal Punishment in Schools as it is harmful to the healthy development of children and an impairment to the learning environment which has resulted in injuries to schoolchildren. DEMAND U.S. CONGRESS ENACT H.R. 5628 "Ending Physical/Corporal Punishment of Children in U.S. Schools Act" IMMEDIATELY, already ILLEGAL IN SCHOOLS IN 30 STATES!

Posted by: gworley1 | January 17, 2011 12:19 AM | Report abuse

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