Who ate all the pies?

AUGUST 26, 2008 5:33PM

Mimicking privileged students to benefit the less privileged

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One of the things that I'm struck by in discussions about what do about schools is how often suggestions sound, whether by accident or design, like saying "if only the poor could be more like the middle class." In conversations between Stellaa and Neilpaul, it's taken the form of a vigorous exchange about how class over-rides meritocracy, and how being too middle-class ends up shutting out the poor - which is a fair point. 

I want to put forward a slightly different take, which is to say, is there any merit to trying to replicate the features of a more middle class / upper middle class public school experience to improve educational results for lower income students? In other words, are there behaviors and structures that could make a difference. (I'm deliberately avoiding content and standards; that's a subject for a different post.)

Therefore, at the risk of being pilloried for being an unfeeling member of the accursed upper middle class, I'm going to use a quick overview of how we've been tackling our children's education. It's not to suggest that we are generalizable - there's lying with statistics, but when N=1, generalizing is sheer effrontery. Instead, I'm doing this to  to explain why I would propose tweaking when we start delivering education, how it's paid for, what it means to engage parents, and why we should rethink the notion of the education market to move away from vouchers and towards restructuring to meet local needs. I'm narrowing in on those because I think they get to ways - not exclusive, by any stretch of the imagination - in which schools can provide a good education by off-setting the challenges that low-income students face.

A little background...

When it comes to our kids, you can tell that the missus is a bit of a blue-stocking (had she gone on with her PhD program, she would have been a fourth generation piled-higher-and-deeper), and that she has a background in cognitive science and linguistics. We put an emphasis on reading (to, not by the kids) and unstructured play with toys that they have to manipulate, recognizing that sadly, these are luxuries of a sort. Both girls started at some form of nursery school at 2; the older one is now in first grade.

We used to live in Washington DC, and we moved to Montgomery County MD partly because the house bought for two working adults wasn't cutting it, and partly for the schools. Our concern about the DC schools were that the administration was pretty damn inflexible and inept. This resulted in at least three parental reactions, depending on class and available free time - pushing for vouchers, which Congress was kind enough to pilot despite local objections; establishing charter schools; and, generating parental contributions.

The latter was what characterized our old neighborhood school in DC. The parents were raising well into six figures annually, to support additional staff and resources, and the school was doing pretty well in terms of standardized tests and so on... but some parents we met grumbled about an emphasis on crowd control, and it was no coincidence that there were effectively no special needs students there - they were immediately put into DC's (totally unsupervised and un-audited) program to send special-needs kids to local private schools.

By contrast, the elementary school that my daughter now attends has an integrated center for special-needs kids who are included in the daily life of the school, not isolated in a corner. They have a decent program, they do their best to accomodate kids at different learning levels in a class, there's an emphasis on students being engaged in school activities, and - for lack of a better way to put it - the slightly over-bearing parental involvement in volunteerism has the upside of reinforcing the variety that comes from having a lot of students from diplomatic or IMF / World Bank families.

What I want to draw from that is not the nauseating list of how fab life is for us, but to get at what you might need to do to give kids who aren't in our neighborhood a fighting chance of getting more out of their education. To put it differently, it seems to me that in order to provide an education that is truly useful to low-income students, schools could fill the gaps that my wife and I can afford to fill in, for those lower income students.

In no particular order:

Establish universal pre-school and offer after-school time for older kids

The idea here is not to start kids on academic learning from the beginning of their institutionalization, excuse me school life, but to recognize that there's some merit of having a consistent standard for all kids in terms of being in a predictable environment where they can play, listen to stories, and generally get their kid on and get interested in learning.  I know that a lot of day-care centers do this, but poorer kids aren't always getting that kind of day care, as opposed to somewhere to be. (And not because they're being Yogic...)

Equally, having after school activities (music, art, sports if possible) and study-hall for older kids provides them with an environment to actually get some work done, interact with teachers, do something other than sit on their butts watching television or whatever. That kind of structure is hard for any set of working parents to provide in the house after school, never mind for poorer families the quiet space in which to do homework or the like. This shouldn't be down to a crapshoot of whether there's a decent Boys' and Girls' club nearby.

Of course, this is staff and therefore cost intensive, which given the low value assigned to public schools, suggests it wouldn't happen. But if you did want it to happen, revisiting funding sources would be a necessary step.

Re-assess Funding for Equity

It's not news that using property taxes to fund education is a guarantee of unequal resources between school districts. Not every school district has the demographics and spending profile of Montgomery County, after all. When funding of schools is very localized, it is hard to ensure that any given district has a good chance of producing what they need to get results. Perhaps it makes sense to fund at a regional level or a state level, that's probably specific to a given location, as would be the form of tax. Regardless, local property-tax funding only reinforces the social gaps that adversely affect education.

Furthermore, don't assume that equity means equal distribution of funds - it may be that schools in poorer neighborhoods have periods of needing higher levels of funding - see after school activities as one example, wherein you're providing resources that parents cannot. However, those resources can't just be provided with no effort to engage parents about the value to their kids of their support.

Find different ways to engage parents

It's very easy to pillory parents for producing children who appear unteachable because they are unruly, or just don't give a shit. Some parents are genuinely unsupportive, and some just don't know the difference. Rather than expect working poor parents to be engaged at the same level as people with more free time and money, schools should work with what they can get - and just getting parents to understand how to not be in the way is a huge start. You don't have to pay for SAT prep classes and chaperone field trips to reinforce a child's education and show that it is valuable and valued.

I'm about to admit something that will cause Stellaa (at a minimum) to give me some shit, but I am an alum of the University of Southern California, which has a scholarship program called the Neighborhood Academic Initiative. It's for students from the immediate neighborhood - in South Central LA, that is -  who are potential first generation college students but have more potential than achievement. The program is more than most school systems could manage - starting in the 6th grade, 6 years of extra teaching and programs and required parental involvement, in exchange for a free ride to USC if they finish the progran and want the scholarship.

I mention this program not as a model that is universally applicable, but because it does raise the point that it's possible that working poor parents may just need a hand in seeing what they can do to help, even if it's just getting out of the way to allow for some homework. Most NAI parents don't have a college degree and many never finished school at all; you can't blame them for not immediately grasping how to support a child in that area.

It's not like this can only be done for students who are near a university - it's a question of finding a hook that is motivating. For example, The learning / working program that Joanne Jacobs called out would be another way to engage students and their parents in supporting education, even if they can't just show up and moderate break-time spats.

Revise "market" thinking for schools

The voucher movement wouldn't exist if there weren't widespread dissatisfaction with how some public schools were doing with their results; unfortunately, it's also good way to set the stage for dimishing public schools and increasing religious schools and corporate primary education. It seems like this is because we're applying the wrong part of the consumer model - rather than addressing the supply, we're breaking up the demand. To elaborate: if you take the view that students and their families are consumers of education, then failing schools are not meeting consumer needs. It seems perverse, however, that the supplier of education would then say, well the hell with it, here's a coupon, go somewhere else, instead of changing the delivery. Not only are you under-cutting your own school system, you're providing an unqual solution (unless of course there are school places for every child and no family has any commuting issues, which seems unlikely.)

If the school isn't hitting the mark because it's not working, or because the programs and curriculum aren't pitched at the right level, then invest in changing it. Public schools are a community institution, and they aren't just a factory for appropriately qualified worker bees, they should produce functional citizens. Vouchers may or may not achieve that, but what they do achieve is killing the impetus for change. School districts owe it to their parents and pupils to be more responsive rather than embracing vouchers, to provide a useful education for the mind, working life, and civic life.

Whether the content of an education achieves that is, as noted above, a wholly different question.

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Good heavens that was longer than I expected. Many thanks if you got through that array of pollyana thinking to the comments.
These are all wonderful ideas; however, I feel that a great deal of progress in schools and education can be undone just by the lifestyle of low-income students--unless of course, there is an equal effort made towards reducing poverty.

Even in a perfect learning environment, hunger, less than adequate health care, and, for older students, needing to provide supplemental income to their families cuts into kids' focus and study time.