Sunday, August 28, 2011

What is it that schools do, after all?

I don’t have a lot to say about the majority of the content of Sara Mosle’s review of Steve Brill’s new book Class Warfare as I am yet to read the book, but this part of her argument did catch my eye:
      Brill extols the recent documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” which argues that better teachers are the key to boosting achievement. But surprisingly, what we see in the movie aren’t so much good teachers as academically effective parents: mothers and fathers who, despite difficult circumstances, read with their children, push them to do their homework and actively seek out exceptional charters, which (unlike the mediocre or failing ones) are oversubscribed and thus rely on lotteries with long odds for admission.
       Yet to Brill and the filmmakers, these parents’ love, sweat and tears must be irrelevant, because what really matters is the quality of a child’s teacher. To prove the point, Brill cites one study that shows that students who won the lottery subsequently performed better in school than those who lost. “Same demographics, same motivation, different result,” he concludes.
      But this argument ignores the aggregate effect of student and parental attitudes. Children who don’t win a coveted spot at a program like KIPP don’t just miss the charter’s arguably better teachers; they also lose out on the self-­reinforcing atmosphere of success and striving that comes from attending a school where everyone — or at least most students and parents — has demonstrated an especially deep commitment to learning. At KIPP, for example, students go to school longer each day, each year, and also attend classes on alternating Saturdays and in the summers. Families that don’t embrace this ethos leave or can be asked to leave, an option not available to regular public schools.
If I follow the logic here correctly, it goes, roughly:

· Unions aren’t the whole story.

· The actual story suggests a much bigger place for non-school factors, especially “academically effective parents”

· Brill is wrong to point to KIPP and other successful charter groups as proof points because their secret sauce isn’t so much that they teach students in a transformative way as bring together the most committed families in underserved communities, producing an “aggregate effect of student and parent attitudes” that accounts for such success.

This seems to me an especially odd version of the selection effect argument about charters. That argument usually posits that the key to charter success is the ability to pick and choose the best and most motivated students (not by creating admissions standards, but by eliminating a certain unmotivated portion of the population by requiring more steps to enrollment than simply living in the boundary of a neighborhood school, and when that fails to eliminate slackers, schools can just kick them out.) I tend to be a bit suspicious of these arguments given that I’ve never seen them accompanied by data (and I can’t imagine it’s that hard to figure out how many students the most successful charters kick out, or other important data related to such an argument). Still, Mosle’s argument isn’t that argument, exactly. Instead of culling the smartest students, she says this effect takes place by attracting the most motivated families.

Implicit in this conclusion, it seems, is that credit for the success that results from this coming-together of families should go to the families and not the schools. Now, I’m certainly not one to try to deny credit to the devoted families that work so hard to give their children the best they can in an environment where passivity too often results in tragic life outcomes. However, Mosle’s conclusion here demonstrates both a misread of the situation and a bias about what schools do for students. First, from my limited knowledge about what happens at KIPP and other successful charters, I feel no hesitation in saying that these schools don’t simply put out lemonade and cookies in a gymnasium and let families get together and chat about the best ways to push their students to do their best. That is, to be sure, an oversimplification, but it underscores my broader point about the bias that this conclusion demonstrates. The bias is one that operates from a limited perspective on what it is precisely that schools do. Schools aren’t merely content conveyors; schools are social environments and the best schools work hard to promote the types of school and community culture in which the accumulated effect that Mosle describes not only occurs, but thrives. That is to say, it seems unfair to deny schools some credit for their very purposeful promotion of this “self-­reinforcing atmosphere of success and striving.”

This bias about what it is schools do shows up in a much more pernicious way when it comes to discussion about the future of technology and education. While many are predicting the fast-approaching death of the traditional classroom in favor of a more individualized, student-driven, online learning experience (read: YouTube, video games and iPad apps), I tend to think that a quick, wholesale replacement of the current system is unlikely. While I might be convinced with enough evidence that such an individualized technological approach to education could do a much better jobs at getting kids to learn their times tables (and other such “hard skills” in a variety of content areas), I think that just misses the point of what school is all about. The best schools are also good at teaching students softer skills such as the navigation of their social environment, persistence in the face of hardship, leadership, etc. that are just never going to be replaced by Math Blasters. Planet Money had a great podcast on the power of these soft skills recently. (If you want the shorter version of the story from All Things Considered, you can find that here.) Fair warning: these stories contain super cute children.

If you want to hear more discussion of Brill’s new book, C-SPAN’s Book TV (I’ll pause a second here while I wait for you to wake back up from the narcoleptic effect of the phrase “C-SPAN’s Book TV”) provides the tantalizing prospect of Diane Ravitch interviewing Brill about the book. Ultimately, though, it just provided me with a fun game of see-how-long-you-can-stand-the-bickering. (Incidentally, I lasted about 15 minutes.)

1 comment:

  1. Nice post CJ, interesting stuff that I know absolutely nothing about..thanks for the perspective