Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fighting Is Fun; Progress Is Better

Two pieces of education news caught my attention recently. Among the usual din of fights over common core implementation, teacher evaluations and other similarly controversial reform efforts came two bits of information that show how broken the system is for some students in some places, but also give us a reason to hope that progress is possible. First, a post from the New America Foundation's Early Ed Watch blog pointed out the surprising and depressing fact that for all the talk of late about Pre-K, a startling number of states do not even offer their students free, full-day kindergarten through their local public school district. Using a yearly map from the Children's Defense Fund, Clare McCann runs down the current state of play for kindergarten throughout the nation:
Most states do not guarantee by law that children will have access to a full day of kindergarten, and six states don’t require districts to offer any type of kindergarten…Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that about three-quarters of kindergartners were in full-day programs as of 2010. But those data do not say whether those children’s parents pay tuition for part of the day, or whether the lowest-income and neediest children are enrolled in kindergarten programs.
The bottom line is that while we're spending time debating the whether and how to get our nation to universal Pre-K, thanks to a push from the President in the State of the Union and through his recently released budget, we still don't even have universal full day kindergarten.

The other piece of information that came to my attention, that high-achieving low-income students tend not to apply to or attend the most selective colleges, despite having the ability succeed at such schools, has been covered quite thoroughly by David Leonhardt at the Times and Matt Yglesias at Slate. As Leonhardt explains:
Only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges, according to the analysis, conducted by Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard, two longtime education researchers. Among top students in the highest income quartile, that figure was 78 percent.
So where's the hope in these two ostensibly discouraging facts? For me, they are evidence of how a considerable portion of the shortcomings of the current system aren't the result of malfeasance or disagreement on the part of policy makers or school officials or teachers, but rather the natural byproduct of designing and administering a hugely complex system. Would a system without such bugs be better? Certainly. But given that we don't have that sort of system, these naturally-occuring shortcomings can be opportunities for reform that don't face the same up-hill political battle that other reform issues do and, in the case of getting talented poor kids to the best colleges, may not even require legislative or policy fixes.

While universal kindergarten, if mandated from the federal level, might face pushback from states'-rights types, state-by-state pressure from unions (for whom the increase in Kindergarten teachers would require an increase in demand for teachers) and reformers alike could start to move the ball on such things. Additionally, undoubtedly funding kindergarten might be a challenging demand for state budgets to meet, but providing the necessary funding might be a leverage point for federal policy-makers.

As for helping low-income high achievers, it seems that one of the main impediments to changing the habits of such students is the type and clarity of information they are provided with. In some cases its a paucity of friends and family who have successfully traversed the path to selective schools that prevents such students from pursuing enrollment at the best schools. But, my own experience with trying to get good information about the availability and prudence of taking out student loans to pay for graduate school has shown me, greater availability to get good advice and guidance on how best to proceed with choosing and handling the college admission process would undoubtedly have a hugely positive effect on the status quo. And as David Leonhardt has said in a follow-up piece on another bit of research from    Hoxby and Avery, research has shown just that. That's a job that government agency might be able to do, but it might also be something that a creative non-profit could tackle.

In both cases, though, they represent opportunities for the traditionally opposed poles of the education world, who seem so often to love the opportunity to fight about their differences, to come together on what should be common-sense fixes to our system.

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