NPR to School Reformers:
"Leave Now, and Don't Look Back"

Wednesday's NPR piece about No Child Left Behind -- Poverty Holds Back 'No Child Law' -- is both mystifying and disturbing.

In it, the whispery-voiced Claudio Sanchez takes us to East St. Louis -- one of the most blighted (and frequently profiled) communities in America -- to tell us, in essence, that even if NCLB is working it is destined to be overwhelmed other problems (gangs, violence, poverty, employment).

Among others, Sanchez is basically channeling former NYT columnist Richard Rothstein, whose recent book points out that there are so many larger social ills that to focus on education alone makes no sense.

The argument is a close cousin to the old but still pervasive notion that low-income kids can't achieve at high levels, or only once in a while. I thought we were done with that one, but apparently not.

Despite the lovely atmospherics (kids playing Double Dutch in the background, etc.), Sanchez never tells us if NCLB is working in East St. Louis, or how far the schools there have to go. Nor does he make much of a case that gangs and violence are getting worse, or are really in the way of school improvement.

Instead, he tells us about an "attractive" young mother who's pulled her daughter out of the public schools in favor of a parochial school, and a dedicated parochial educator who bemoans the lack of resources and civic capacity in the city.

Only briefly, through some snippets of interview with the firm-minded superintendent, does he give voice to the notion that high expectations can lead to high results, even without any magic wand.

Over all the piece doesn't cut against NCLB so much as it cuts against school reform efforts in general. The piece ends with Sanchez telling us -- and East St. Louis residents -- to leave now, and don't look back.


Blogger Richard said...

You write " I thought we were done with that one, but apparently not" regarding sociological explanations for poor performance. You suggest that the implied conclusion of these sorts of explanations is that poor (low-SES, that is) students cannot succeed.

I do not interpret it that way. It is not that poor students cannot succeed, but rather that poverty is one of those risk factors contributing to being prepared to do well in school. The more risk factors, the worse a stuedent is likely to do in school.

I don't know who you are talking to that is done with looking at the environment in which these children come from but most scholars studying school problems have not abandoned individual backgrounds as part of the explanation for individual performance in school

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Bruce Hunter said...

Only a small group of Washington insiders ever thought we were done discussing the effect of infrequent or non existent health care on learning. The entire premise of IDEA is that some health conditions impede learning. If poor children who are not in special education have chronic fluid in their inner ear they do not hear certain high frequency sounds like s and th and they may get no medical help for their condition because their families lack insurance or providers are scarce in their neighborhoods. Those suudents will have more difficulty learning to read. If students who have chronic otitis media are added to the students who have untreated dental problems and untreated asthma the group is large enough to change average test scores. This group of kids is largely found in low income homes and thus are found in the low income group when data are disaggregated. No reading intervention that I know of can counter absence due to asthma or sleepyness due to coughing all night. This doesn't mean that high quality interventions by good teachers won't help them, just less on average than kids who are healthy most of the time or who get timely medical assistance. Your contention that poverty does not influence school performance is an ideological view not supported by years of research and data collection. Perhaps you mistake average test scores for a single data point rather than representative of a range where some low income kids outscore high income kids. The fact that some low income kids receiving directed interventions score well on state tests does not mean that other such children with chronic health or housing problems can accomplish the same feat without an additional intervention that addresses their specific health or housing issues.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Alexander Russo said...

Bruce -- Thanks for your comment. You make some good points. For example, I have no doubt about health and housing being key things in a child's life and education. And yes, of course, there are many things that schools and classrooms can't do.

But I thought -- perhaps mistakenly or wishfully -- that educators were done with the long-standing idea that you can SES as an excuse for things that can be addressed in schools (qualified teachers, rigorous teaching, decent buildings), or as a reason to wait.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Alexander Russo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

One of the lessons should surely be that there is no single panacea.

Another should be that an analysis such as that urged by W. Edwards Deming might be useful.

What is it that makes a kid successful, academically?

Remembering that there is no single panacea, we probably come to realize there is no single set of things that make panacea, either. But generally, these things can combine:

1. Good prenatal care to insure a healthy baby.
2. Lots of attention paid by parents and other loving caregivers during all parts of infancy.
3. Lots of stimulation in a pleasant fashion by things to touch, see, hear, smell and do.
4. Parents who are well-educated and/or who read a lot and communicate a lot, especially to the kid.
5. Great play experiences with other kids.
6. Well-trained teachers (meaning well-paid? Yes, usually) in kindergarten, with
7. A safe, well-lighted room, and
8. Lots of good books, and
9. A good curriculum ambitiously and vigorously delivered, with a smile.
10. Learning to read early, and being immersed in a love for learning.
11. More good teachers in good, well-equipped schools, through elementary school.
12. Learning most of the basics in a well-disciplined academic environment.
13. More well-trained, well-equipped teachers in a good facility in junior high.
14. More well-trained, well-equipped teachers in a good facility in high school.
15. A family that features a lot of college graduates or in other ways demonstrates that it highly values education beyond high school.

And so on.

I'm sure I've left a few factors out. Delete any of those factors, and the chances for academic achievement and success in school start to diminish -- not that some do not overcome the hurdles, but that fewer will be able to do so.

Few if any kids get the whole ball of "guaranteed to work in education" stuff. So we know that some of these elements can be sacrificed.

But we don't know which ones, or in which combinations.

4:53 PM  

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