Reconciliation in the school reform war
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.
| January 10, 2011; 12:15 PM ET
Categories: Huffman | Tags: Kevin Huffman
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