Russlynn, you properly state that educators can't improve social conditions while they can do much to improve schools. But educators are also citizens, and they have unique insight into the socioeconomic challenges faced by children they teach. At work, teachers should concentrate on getting higher classroom achievement. But as citizens, they should be outspoken about the support they need from social policy without fear of being accused of "making excuses."
These are not either/or choices. We need not believe either in improving schools or in providing healthcare, housing supports, high-quality early childhood programs or greater economic security. We need do all of these, if we are truly committed to greater equality.
Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and author of "Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap." He was formerly the national education columnist for the New York Times.
Disadvantaged students can achieve too
Exactly, Richard: It's not an either-or choice. Our nation can and must address the outrageous conditions under which too many of our children are growing up and simultaneously work to ensure that they have the intellectual tools they need to contribute to and benefit from our economic, social and cultural mainstream.
I think our only argument is around sequencing.
You seem to believe that we cannot close the achievement gap until we end poverty. I am convinced that we cannot end poverty without closing the gap. Moreover, I know to a certainty that low-income kids absolutely can achieve at high levels levels just as high as their more affluent peers though I would not argue for a second that this is easy nor that it can be done at scale without dramatic changes in how we "do school" in America.
Of course the government should ensure that every child whose family cannot afford health insurance has it. Of course we should ensure families who cannot afford decent housing get the housing assistance they need.
But our goal as a nation should not be to create a class of people whose economic survival depends in whole on the generosity of government. You yourself pointed to your concerns about our nation's welfare system. Instead, our goal should be to ensure that vastly higher proportions of our citizens have the skills and knowledge to get good, high-paying jobs, to actively participate in our democracy and to be the sort of well-educated parents that you credit with such an important role in preparing children for the rigors of schooling.
If these are our goals, closing the achievement gap must be at the center of our agenda, not something to be done after poverty is "solved."
Richard, you dismiss too quickly as flukes and outliers high-achieving, high-poverty schools. In doing so, you once again demean and diminish the educators and students who are succeeding against the odds. No one would deny that there are too few of these schools, but I think you may be confused about exactly which "odds" they are beating. The biggest challenge these educators face is often not the poverty, health status or mobility of their students. Instead, the longest odds are those created by our education culture, which denies that these children can succeed and therefore gives them less of the stuff that academic success is made of: good teachers, rich curriculum, challenging course work and engaging classroom assignments.
At high-achieving, high-poverty schools, the poverty status of students is hardly "hidden" from the educators. Rather, it is central to their strategies. For example, the School District of Philadelphia which has lots of poor children who are very mobile put into place a citywide curriculum so children who move could pick up right where they left off. Years ago, the San Jose Unified School District took a different approach to its high student mobility: It just bused the kids who moved back to their "home" school. Problems like mobility are not hidden from educators. The point is that good systems decide what they as educators can do about the problems, while most systems just throw up their hands.
Some high-performing public schools, like Ralph Bunche Elementary School in Carson, provide another example of aggressive response to the problems of poverty. This school boasts more growth on the statewide Academic Performance Index than any other public school in California from 2000 to 2006, increasing its score from 450 to 868 (the statewide success target is 800). How did Bunche do it with a student body that is 99% Latino and African American and 93% low-income? It transformed what teaching is and what it looks like at the school, empowering teachers to plan together, share challenging lessons and assess their instructional practices on a weekly basis. Simultaneously, the parents and students were held accountable for attending school every day with behavior reflective of a desire to learn and go to college. In short, Bunche decided to accept no excuses.
Like you, many educators seem to find it easier to denigrate successful high-poverty schools like Bunche as statistical flukes or worse, as liars and cheats than do the hard work of identifying and emulating their best practices. Because learning from leaders is often the best way to improve practice in any endeavor, such attitudes aren't helpful.
Since our discussion about education issues has become enveloped by healthcare issues, let me highlight a fast-improving area of medicine to illustrate the point.
One of the arenas where results have improved most dramatically over the last few decades is in the treatment of cystic fibrosis, a disease that mostly attacks young children, dramatically reducing their lung capacity. Back in the 1960s, the average expected life span for a child with cystic fibrosis was 10 years. Today, children treated at the leading hospital centers can expect to live beyond age 50.
How did we get there? Not by dismissing the centers that got better results as statistical flukes, but by studying these "positive deviants" and emulating their practices elsewhere.
When people looked at the leading institutions, they didn't find healthcare professionals who just wished for healthier patients with better-educated parents or nicer homes. Instead, they found healthcare professionals who were relentless in pursuing better outcomes for their patients and who did whatever it took to make that happen. And these professionals didn't just assume that, because their patients entered with lung disease, they were doomed to consistently have lung capacity below that of normal children. They aimed for equal or better lung capacity, and that's what they produced.
Frankly, we need more of that spirit in education. Instead of pointing to problems outside of our control and labeling all the places where we can try to lay blame, we need to buckle down, learn from our highest performers and figure out how to put those best practices into widespread use.
Russlynn Ali is the executive director of The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based think tank focused on closing the achievement gaps separating low-income students and students of color from other young Californians.