Monday, September 19, 2011

Do Schools Matter? (my article)

Is it really egotistical to do a STOP THE PRESSES for one of my own articles? ;-)


I just published this today in the Huffington Post:

I recently had a conversation with a friend who is just beginning to engage on the topic of education reform and he asked me the following:

I've looked at the data for the schools in my city and there's a lockstep correlation between the percentage of children who receive free lunches and academic failure, so I guess the solution is to stop giving kids free lunches, as it's obviously impairing their ability to learn.

He was kidding, of course, and we both laughed, but then he continued:

Seriously, the poverty level of children correlates very highly with their academic performance, however you measure it: test scores, grades, dropout rates, college completion, etc. In addition, if one looks at the international results on the PISA reading test of 15-year-olds, while the U.S. overall ranks 15th in the world, U.S. Asian girls rank #1, beating even Shanghai, Korea and Finland, and girls as a whole rank #8. It is boys, low-income students, and black and Latino students who drag our average down. So, is it really fair to blame our educational system? Isn't the real issue poverty plus the problems boys and minorities are having?

It's a fair question -- and a point made often by the teachers unions and others who defend the current educational system in our country. So I look the time to answer him. Here's what I wrote:

You are correct that today, demography is destiny for most kids. In my slide presentation, A Right Denied, page 46 shows that virtually all kids from high-income families earn four-year college degrees, while few other kids do -- a mere 8% of kids from low-income families -- and the gap has widened dramatically over time.

…In fact, if I could fix either all of the parents (broadly defined, meaning ending childhood poverty, making sure every child had plenty of books and both parents in the home, etc.) or all of the schools in America, I'd choose the former in a heartbeat. But I'm not sure it's possible to fix the parents -- and I know it's possible to fix the schools.

Here is the key thing to understand: if you take 1,000 disadvantaged kids and put them in mediocre (or worse) schools with mediocre (or worse) teachers, they will follow their parents' life trajectory in lockstep. However, if you take the same 1,000 kids and put them in a high-quality school with excellent teachers, you can dramatically improve the life outcomes of a large number of these children.

20 years ago, I couldn't prove this because, other than a few classrooms with teachers like Jaime Escalante, there were no examples of a large number of disadvantaged kids doing well thanks to their school.

But today I can prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, both with statistics and with my own eyes, as I've visited over 100 schools that are generating extraordinary academic success with the most disadvantaged children. Most are public charter schools that select students by lottery, have comparable students and spend roughly the same per pupil as nearby chronically failing schools, and, in fact, sometimes share the same building.

…Thus, we must reject a "blame the victim" mentality: children are not failing our schools; rather, our schools are failing far too many children.

However, given that many low-income, minority children enter school with two strikes against them, they need the best schools and teachers to change their life trajectories -- but instead our educational system gives them the worst. They overwhelmingly get the lowest quality teachers and schools.

In summary, the color of your skin and your zip code are almost entirely determinative of the quality of the public education this nation provides. This is deeply, profoundly wrong and is contrary to everything this nation stands for.


Do Schools Matter?

Posted: 9/18/11 04:20 PM ET

Whitney Tilson

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