"Schools Count,"by Dianne Piche & Tamar Ruth In Class and Schools, Richard Rothstein suggests that school reform will not produce results unless and until the entire liberal social and economic agenda is fully enacted. He has summarized a one-sided collection of unsurprising and not very new studies about the impact of poverty, discrimination and class-related child-rearing practices on student outcomes.September/October 2004 issue of Poverty & Race
In Class and Schools, Richard Rothstein suggests that school reform will not produce results unless and until the entire liberal social and economic agenda is fully enacted. He has summarized a one-sided collection of unsurprising and not very new studies about the impact of poverty, discrimination and class-related child-rearing practices on student outcomes. His purpose is clear: to make a case that schools cannot be expected to produce the dramatic improvements demanded by increasing numbers of parents and voters, and called for under the No Child Left Behind Act, because there is very little schools can do to mitigate achievement gaps caused primarily by non-school factors.
Rothstein is wrong about the potential and power of schools, and here’s why:
First, education continues to be the single most important and effective “equalizer” of opportunity in our society. If there is one place progressives can and should put their energy and see results, it is in improving public schools, because despite the persistence of race and sex discrimination in the job market, education remains the most promising ticket into the middle class for black and Latino children. For example, in the years following enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the inception of Head Start and Title I programs in 1965, along with court-enforced desegregation, we saw dramatic narrowing of the gap between African American and white children on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Certainly there are “non-school” factors that are difficult or outside the power of schools to overcome, as Rothstein describes. Rather than write off the potential of schools, however, we should redouble our efforts to ensure that all children have access to schools that work, including: qualified teachers; a safe and supportive learning environment; and, critically, instruction that is not dumbed down but rather matched with the same high standards taught in the suburbs and required now by growing numbers of states in order to graduate. If states and school districts are not willing or able to desegregate schools with high concentrations of poverty (and the Prospects study conducted for the National Assessment of Title I, as well as other credible research, has made it clear that one of the worst educational environments is high poverty concentration in the classroom), they and the federal government should provide additional, carefully targeted resources to such schools and their students to enable them to succeed, including: highly qualified teachers; extended time (e.g., high-quality summer and after-school programs); additional highly-trained professionals (e.g., reading specialists, master teachers/coaches); professional development in reading and other core subjects that is aligned with the state’s standards; and sufficient pay or other incentives for good teachers to remain in these schools. While a certain amount of racial and economic isolation in schools is outside the control of school officials (the result of entrenched residential segregation), school boards retain control over student assignment and attendance policies and ought to do all in their power to reduce poverty concentration in classrooms; magnet schools, controlled choice and compliance with NCLB’s new transfer provisions can all help reduce isolation and improve learning outcomes.
Second, Rothstein’s contention that most successful high-poverty or high-minority schools are flukes, statistical outliers or selective academies is not supportable. Despite Rothstein’s effort to deflate and discredit as many success stories as he can, our own experience in teaching and advocacy is completely consistent with The Education Trust reports on successful schools and the belief that success is possible in far more schools (http://www2.edtrust.org/edtrust/dtm/), and for many more students, than currently reported. There are success stories on an individual, school and community-wide basis all across the country, and we each have been fortunate to live, witness and celebrate success everywhere we go. For example:
Finally, Rothstein fails to address how schools and school officials themselves are often responsible for perpetuating and exacerbating achievement gaps. Many more kids would succeed in school and huge parts of the gaps would be erased if adults in charge of schools ended policies and practices we know are bad for kids, including the following:
But, as discussed above, we disagree completely with his thesis in Class and Schools that schools themselves can do little to close achievement gaps.
Not only is Rothstein’s thesis incorrect, it also provides ammunition to an entrenched, retrograde education establishment desperate to excuse achievement gaps at a time when there is a growing public consensus that such gaps are neither inevitable nor morally defensible. This “establishment” includes some (though by no means all) public officials, school administrators and classroom teachers who are challenged, and in some cases personally threatened, by the gap-closing promises and requirements of the bipartisan NCLB. It also includes many middle- and upper-class parents and voters who, historically, have been reluctant to send their tax dollars to the other side of town to improve the schools of poor and nonwhite students.
Ironically, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, those very provisions in NCLB that call for racial and economic justice in the provision of educational resources (including high-quality teaching) are among the most threatening to some otherwise moderate to liberal constituencies, including the nation’s largest teachers’ union. These NCLB provisions include the requirement that states put all schools on a trajectory to ensure that all children, including poor and minority students, can read and do math at the state’s own levels of proficiency within 12 years (a timeline decried as unrealistic by many in the education establishment, but way too long for most parents whose children will have fallen far behind, or dropped out, by the time the deadlines roll around). Less widely discussed (perhaps because the Bush Administration has been complicit in state and local disregard of these provisions) are additional requirements in NCLB to redirect resources to the schools with greatest needs, including closing the well-documented “teacher quality gap” between rich and poor schools. Compliance with this provision (which was supported by a coalition of civil rights organizations but opposed by the teachers’ unions) could involve the redeployment of highly qualified teachers at well-off schools to those with high concentrations of poverty and/or the provision of economic and other incentives for good teachers to remain in high-needs schools.
Most of us who support a broad progressive economic and civil rights agenda know the playing field in and out of school very likely will not be leveled in our lifetimes, nor during the school careers of millions of poor African American and Latino children now in or about to enter the public school system. But we refuse to give up on a generation or even a classroom of children, or to stop pushing lawmakers, school administrators and other educators to do their very best, even as the Right Wing pushes for more shredding of the safety net and the Left backs off its commitment to enforcing racial equality in education. It is not only reasonable but also morally imperative that we expect all schools to do right by all students.
Dianne Piche , a civil rights lawyer, is Executive Director of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, where she was principal editor of CCCR's 2004 publication, Choosing Better Schools: A Study of Student Transfers Under the No Child Left Behind Act, and their 2002 report, Rights at Risk: Equality in an Age of Terrorism. She also teaches education law and policy at the University of Maryland-College Park. Diannepiche@cccr.org
Tamar Ruth is an award-winning elementary school teacher in Montgomery County, MD, a doctoral student in education policy and leadership at the University of Maryland, and on the board of the Montgomery County Education Association (the NEA teachers union). firstname.lastname@example.org.K12.md.us
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