The Limits of School Reform
Joe Nocera is one of the best business writers in America and I'm delighted that he's recently moved from the NYT business section to the even more widely read and influential NYT op ed page. So it was with dismay that I read his column that will appear in tomorrow's paper, in which he buys – hook, line and sinker – into the utter nonsense (which the unions and Ravitch repeat endlessly) that school reformers think a student's demographic/family background doesn't matter and "that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that's required to improve student performance, so that's all the reformers focus on." NO WE DON'T!!! NOBODY believes this! So how does Nocera justify this completely wrong-headed statement? Apparently from this quote:
Yet the reformers act as if a student's home life is irrelevant. "There is no question that family engagement can matter," said Klein when I spoke to him. "But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let's go home. We don't yet know how much education can overcome poverty," he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. "To let us off the hook prematurely seems to me to play into the hands of the other side."
But Klein isn't saying what Nocera says he is. Rather, he's saying that, yes, family engagement (and education level, whether both parents are in the house, wealth, books in the household, whether the family is on welfare, the age of the mother at the birth of the first child, etc.) matter A LOT, but – and this is a HUGE but – this is NOT an excuse for schools to give up on kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, to stick with the worst teachers, have low/no expectations, fail to teach the majority of them to read at even a basic level by age 10, etc. – which is EXACTLY what is happening every day to millions of poor and minority children.
We reformers absolutely acknowledge the importance of students' demographic/family backgrounds – heck, the sad truth is that demography IS destiny for the vast majority of American children. However, we REFUSE to accept that if a child is difficult to educate, then we should give up on him/her and make excuses for widespread, abject failure. Instead, we DEMAND that every principal and every teacher in a school serving disadvantaged kids be as capable and committed as Ramón González and Emily Dodd (who were profiled in Mahler's article; by the way, when I blogged about this article earlier this month (http://edreform.blogspot.com/2011/04/fragile-success-of-school-reform-in.html), I was too sensitive to the anti-reform stuff in it and thus dismissed it too easily; it's well worth reading: www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/magazine/mag-10School-t.html). What Nocera doesn't seem to realize is: 1) how rare people like González and Dodd are in schools like M.S. 223; and 2) the only reason they're there is BECAUSE of the heroic efforts of reformers like Klein.
I wonder what Nocera would do if he had a son who had a learning disability of some sort and couldn't afford to send him anywhere except the nearby public school. What would his reaction be if the principal and teachers said, "Joe, your kid isn't so bright and it would require a lot of extra effort to educate him at a high level, but extra hours aren't in our contract and he probably isn't going to amount to much anyway, so we're going to stick him with the crappiest teachers at the school and not do anything extra for him."? Nocera would rightly go berserk – if it was his kid – but it doesn't seem to bother him that this attitude is, in fact, the norm at the typical school that low-income, minority kids in this country are forced to attend. This fact fills me with outrage – and I'm going to give Nocera the benefit of the doubt because he's new to this issue and assume that he, too, would be filled with outrage and would not have written what he did if he knew better.
April 25, 2011