Saturday, October 22, 2011

The best way to raise scores is to teach students.

Jonetta Rose Barras has a piece in the recent Washington City Paper education issue that, despite some seriously disconcerting generalizations about middle class black families in DC, is a pretty interesting look at what’s happening at schools on Capitol Hill. Still, the article is sloppy in its discussion of the socio-economic integration (or lack thereof) that is taking place on the Hill and the supposed ethical obligations of parents in such neighborhoods:

"But the real culprit is the flight-not-fight mentality prevalent in the black middle class. Experts have long complained that such departures lead to starving neighborhood schools of the brightest students. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that test scores of children in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, like Wards 7 and 8, trail those of their counterparts in Ward 3. It didn’t mention, however, that many of those Ward 3 students are, in fact, upper- or middle-class African Americans from outside that Upper Northwest community."

I think this is an important example of how easy it is to get tangled up in the complexities of education policy. There’s a bunch going on in this paragraph. For starters, the “flight-not-fight mentality” that Barras posits underscores how intertwined housing policy is with school policy. (For more on that, check out this Matt Yglesias piece on the awesome new Atlantic Cities site.) But, putting that aside for a second, Barras also seems to use as the foundation of her argument the notion that parents who decide to take advantage of the District’s school choice opportunities are “starving neighborhood schools of the brightest students.” In the process, Barras misses another crucial nuance of education policy: the idea of adding value to students. In Barras’ diagnosis of the main problem facing neighborhood schools in less affluent wards is essentially one of recruitment and retention. That is, because the most affluent (and consequently, the highest achieving) students are fleeing their neighborhood schools, the scores that neighborhood schools should “deserve” to have coming out of their own schools are going to Ward 3 instead. 
        It’s important to recognize that this is in no way an argument about the quality of education that is taking place at these schools. Essentially, it discounts the value of schools altogether. Instead of saying that schools are (at least in part) responsible for taking students from where they are academically and teaching them to a level of proficiency or advanced proficiency, Barras argues that there is a limited (and static) supply of high-scoring students in the DC and the allocation of those students to different wards is totally screwy. Further compounding the seeming injustice of this inequitable allocation of students is the fact that so many high-scoring students that test in Ward 3 live in Ward 7 & 8 and therefore their high scores in some sense belong to those schools.
        But this is a totally extraneous argument to be having. Students’ ability to achieve certain scores is, of course, not static at all and the main work of schools is not to recruit and retain those high scorers. Although there is no doubt that schools that have a preponderance of students with previously high achievement have a much easier job to do in keeping those students at high-achieving levels, what’s causing schools in Ward 7 & 8 to struggle is not that there high-scorers are leaving. Instead, what’s causing high-scorers to leave is that their neighborhood schools have failed so many students for so long. Now, of course, as those high achieving students leave, the benefits of the peer effects that such students bring with them disappears, and I would not fault Barras for lamenting that fact. However, even if her argument were based on the idea that the loss of these peer effects is a huge factor compounding the difficulty of lower-achieving schools, the correct conclusion does not seem to me to be to accuse the parents of students who are leaving their neighborhood schools of shirking their responsibility to their community. Instead, it seems to just expose a huge vulnerability of such schools that might otherwise be obscured somewhat by peer effects. If schools aren’t able to add value to students who aren’t getting great scores, then they probably weren’t teaching very much to the kids who would naturally have scored high on tests. To me, the first priority in such a situation would not be to bring back the peers, but to take a good hard look at the teaching that happens there.
        Now, I want to be clear that while I think peer effects are an important part of understanding the vicious and virtuous cycles that drive scores in the worst and best schools, they are far from as important as my most charitable reading of Barras’ argument would suggest. I tend to think that peer effects aren’t really what she’s discussing, though. I think it’s much more likely that she’s mounting an argument about who has the right to retain and take credit for the highest achieving students and how the individual choices of families impact this.
        Putting aside the policy issues, from an ethical perspective this message to parents that they owe it to their community to keep smart kids in failing or struggling schools seems amiss. I'm not certain I'm ready to commit to the idea that what people owe to their local community ought to be construed as an ethical obligation, but I will certainly concede that communities as a whole are bettered by active participation of community members who feel that they have a stake in the local community. Still even if you decide that your commitment to your community is an ethical matter, it's definitely not the only ethical concern people have to contend with. One of those ethical obligations is to provide your children with a good education that will promise them optimal life prospects. And, when two ethical obligations compete to guide your actions (for example, when your obligation to your community competes with your obligation to your child and his or her education), the more important of the two ought to prevail. Ultimately, parents do (and, I would argue, ought to) feel a stronger pull in the direction of their ethical obligation to give their child the best possible education and will act accordingly and they shouldn't be faulted for this.

As a parting shot on this matter, one quote in particular stuck out to me as provocative, but never explored or explained by the speaker or Barras. Barras quotes Daniel Holt as saying "
Economic integration is the quickest way in our lifetimes to make schools better." This is a very thorny matter, and raises the question of whether we want school reform to happen in the quickest way or in the most effective and long lasting way. Personally, I'd go with the latter, but in reform circles you hear a lot of talk about "urgency" that tends to reject in principle the notion that doing what's best and doing what's quick ever exist in a strict dichotomy. But I think if you choose to ignore the fact that efficacious reforms take time you do so at considerable peril. In any case, I hope to write more about economic integration soon, but for a really smart and important post about the subject, check out Sara Mead here

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