Ignoring the obvious in urban education

On Op-Ed in today’s New York Times by Helen Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke, and Edward Fiske, a former education editor of The New York Times, tackles the issue of the lagging performance of urban schools in America today. Entitled “Class matters. Why won’t we admit it,” the piece makes the compelling and, in my view, quite correct argument that the root cause of achievement problems in urban schools is the poverty of the students and not the quality of the teachers. The authors also assert that policy makers, for a variety of reasons, ignore the fact that “students from poor families don’t do as well as students from well-off families” and that mandated policies don’t help schools “address the challenges [poor students] carry with them into the classroom.”

Not too long ago, I tried to make a similar argument in a comment to a blog post Marie did on the looming state takeover of the Lawrence Public Schools. Here’s what I wrote:

Throughout the 13 years that my son was a student in the Lowell Public Schools (he graduated in 2008) I was very active in the Citywide Parent Council and followed K-12 education issues much closer than I do now. From that experience one thing became perfectly clear: education is all about a dedicated, well-trained teacher in a classroom with a group of students who show up motivated and prepared to learn.

The flaw in the formula is the “motivated and prepared to learn” ingredient because for too many kids today, that’s just not the case. Part of that is self-inflicted: I don’t know about “lavish” vacations, but I do know that parents taking children out of school for extended periods for family trips was a chronic problem in Lowell. I see this as a symptom of the devaluation of education not just in certain communities, but in our culture as a whole.

But poverty and its consequences is a major factor. If a kid does not have a warm, calm, supportive place to eat, live and sleep, that child is not going to be ready to learn when he or she arrives in the classroom no matter how qualified the teacher. For that reason, I’m pleased that the state has “taken over” the Lawrence Public Schools because now we will see that it doesn’t really make any difference. What will the “state” do differently, other than continue to scapegoat teachers and helplessly ignore the reality that the problems in public education are caused primarily by factors outside of the four walls of the school.

One reason that public education is so costly is that the only way that teachers have a chance in their classrooms is if they have a comprehensive support system of social workers, guidance councilors, security guards and other specialists who can tackle all the problems that the kids carry to school with them, problems that in a perfect world, wouldn’t exist or would be dealt with in the home or the church or the neighborhood. Those external entities either don’t exist anymore or are ineffective, so now it all falls on the school.

After which Paul observed that Pat Mogan had long voiced the need to have not only schools, but the entire community, step up and provide the necessary support:

Dr. Patrick J. Mogan’s education revolution in Lowell, dating from the late 1960s, was predicated on the idea of improving what he called “the 80 percent factor,” meaning that part of the student’s experience that occurs outside the classroom. Pat was convinced that the school setting accounted for about 20 percent of successful learning. He and the community radicals from the Model Cities Education Component and Human Services Corp. of the 1970s envisioned a city-scale urban laboratory for teaching and learning.

Drilling down farther into the concept, they conceived of a “center for human development,” an experimental place or “school” that would integrate all services needed by families and children so that the classroom was not compartmentalized.

What we know as the national park in Lowell grew out of the broad notion of “the educative city”–using the immediate environment as a classroom without walls for lifelong learning.

Pat quoted education theorist Jerome Bruner who promoted “active learning” and “believed learning and problem solving emerged out of exploration.” In an interview with me when he was in his 70s, Pat said he “had the concept for years of making the 80 percent factor a school, a school in a different sense, but a learning environment that was going to help people when they got in to the 20 percent factor, the school–and I’m still consumed with that idea.” Now in his 90s, Dr. Mogan is still passionate about helping people learn.

Given the on-going global recession and all the resulting cuts in government spending, it would be easy to conclude that the resources needed to, in the words of Ladd and Fiske, “provide poor students with the social support and experiences that middle class students enjoy as a matter of course” simply aren’t available right now. But that’s not true. New and greater governmental expenditures aren’t available now, that much is true. But throughout the community there are countless entities, governmental and non-profit especially, that provide the type of services needed to bring students from poor families onto the same level as their better-off peers. The problem is that most of these entities operate in isolation or with loose coordination at best. What is needed is some kind of resource czar who could cut through the red tape and the turf battles and efficiently coordinate the existing resources so that they are more efficiently delivered to those who need them. That wouldn’t cost anything extra but it would have the potential to yield a great return. Unfortunately, also would require a degree of selflessness and strategic thinking that has proven completely elusive in our society.

One Response to Ignoring the obvious in urban education

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for drawing our attention to the article, Dick. It’s what every teacher already knows, but what is rarely mentioned. When you overhear students talking about “hanging out” at one in the morning somewhere the previous night, it’s a pretty good bet they’re not ready to attack a lesson with enthusiasm. One of the many indicators of a home life of disorder.

    As much as income, it’s about a stable life and parents who see the importance of education. Another teacher told me yesterday that a student told her that she had asked her mother if she could go to the library to get a book. The mother said, “I can’t give you no money for no book.” The mother, aside from not seeing any value in it, apparently wasn’t aware that you don’t have to pay for books at the library. It’s certain she never read to her child.