School Reform: Tough to Measure and Hostage to Heightened Poverty

Summary: What is the report card on school reform? Test scores, mediocre at best, are too narrow a measure, though useful. Project based deep learning and interventions that motivate students are important, but difficult to measure. Increasing poverty and income inequality make the slope to educational change steeper, and beg associated public investment in job training and creation, health care, affordable housing and the like. Meanwhile, the public becomes restive as fewer benefit from the fruits of the social contract.

A friend recently caught me aback by her dismay at the unending stream of bad news. Since we were talking about a recent blog post of mine, I jumped first to the defensive, then to wonder if I have been too negative in my discussion of school issues or have led too much with critique.

My friend let me off the hook. She clarified she meant the tenor of the general news of the day, not a comment on the darkness of my writing. War in the Middle East, the multiple dilemmas of terrorism, residential re-segregation, global warming, political stalemate, income inequality, racial and social injustice, stagnation in our schools and Donald Trump. Well, yes, there is all of that.

Nevertheless her comment has me examining my point of view. In my selection of topics and how I treat them, have I without intention drifted into sky is falling territory? It’s one thing to measure problems; it’s another to reflect hopelessness. Personally, I try to remember that the republic has been falling apart for two hundred fifty years, but somehow we’re still here.

What is the balance of news in school reform? Is it profoundly negative in that composite test scores seem to budge not nearly enough? Or is the real news isolated progress and pedagogical innovation as reported in anecdotes from all over the map? How do any of us calibrate our frame of reference to see the big picture and the long run, as well as the intricate detail in specific classrooms with real kids and teachers? How will we know when we have momentum? Is reform really a test score issue?

This is a huge multifaceted society. The true pulse is elusive, likely because there are many pulses. The pulse we hear most about involves test scores – reading and math, but writing, too. Because these results are held up as ultimate measures of success or failure of policy, the entire report card of twenty years of school reform looks mediocre at best.

Skill levels do need to improve, but we slip into thinking of them as the final arbiters of success or failure in large part because they satisfy our short term need for metrics. Their simplicity and relative accessibility may camouflage much more complex and subtle changes in students that complement or precede their full attention to skill development.

There are numerous examples. Here are a few.

Public recognition of employers’ need for people who can delve into a problem and emerge with substantive solutions has faded, but teachers yet abound who work with “project based learning” or “deep learning” or “critical thinking” in order to craft an environment in which students “create knowledge, rather than receive knowledge.”  In other words, learn to think independently in the face of potential failure. Research tells us that where this is credibly done, students are more eager to attend to their studies. Minds engaged are more likely also to do the work of skill development.

David Brooks noted recently that another metric — grade point average —  can be overrated, particularly if it is in the possession of someone who has yet to determine what they want out of life and how that might look some years down the road. As Brooks puts it, “our wants are at our core of our identity, the wellspring whence our actions flow.” Schools that nurture such fathoming propel their students into life with a sense of direction that picks up needed skill development along the way.

From such a perspective, I have to wonder if the obsession with test scores actually causes harm; perhaps schools should look first to conditions we know will incubate learning. The Finns and our own heart of hearts would certainly tell us that quality education begins with teachers who like kids and who are knowledgeable and excited about their subject matter, the types that have inspired students to quality from at least Socrates on. Set the conditions of learning first. Beware of narrow goals that elicit narrow techniques.

And there’s more on the conditions of learning. If I am a low income student, son of a single mother who works two jobs in a rough part of town, I have preoccupations that overshadow someone else’s concern with my reading level — security, health, agency, direction, and so forth. See Maslow and others.

Since much of our nation’s score card reflects underachieving by our increasing low income population, whether white, black or brown, I am coming to the belief that schools can only succeed as part of a multi-pronged approach that also buoys health care, parental job opportunities and retraining, affordable housing, reduction of recidivism from prisons, and the like for poor Americans. From this perspective, schools are fighting a losing battle to encroaching poverty, prior to the struggle with academic skill scores. Educators are in a position such as that of Martin Luther King late in his life as he began to see his battles for the civil rights of African Americans as part also of the general struggle for economic equity.

So here we are back at bad news. Dang! Been trying to float the hope. Poverty. Congressional paralysis. Deeply embedded in the electorate and reflected in many of their elected representatives is a fear of government and a related reluctance to spend the exchequer or, more to the point, accept the taxation that would enable the expenditure to create opportunity for poor folk and effect income transfer. So in composite we dither while the tinder dries awaiting sparks that will surely come.

Unrest smolders at various points on the compass. The perplexity that is Donald Trump and the rise of Bernie Sanders embody a profound discontent with the current order. Some of it is discomfort with social change, particularly on the conservative side. But a lot of it is economic disenfranchisement, the chronic marginalization of people of color, and the relatively recent collapse of white middle class job prospects to outsourcing and technological advances. These advancing underclasses have been forgotten if not betrayed by the elites on both sides of the ideological divide.

Folks who do not share in the fruits of the social contract are prone to challenge its legitimacy.

So, my friend dismayed at the negative news, have I arrived in positive or negative territory? The specter of insurrection, though yet at some distance, even if answered creatively as in the past by prescient leaders like FDR, represents a danger too far. On the other hand, the refusal of our people to go as lambs, and not fight in ways within and without the system for their share of the fruits of the social contract, well I think in the end that leaves us in a most enviable position.

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