2000-01-29 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

The New York Times magazine section recently published a long article that has to be one of the most important mass media pieces to come down the pike in many a year.

The article is called "What No School Can Do." James Traub wrote it and what he has to say is so close to what I have been expounding these many years in this space that it is frightening to see it in a liberal publication such as the NYT.

The article is so important that I am going to use this entire column to quote what Traub has to say without my own comment.

If you are not interested in reading the "truth" about the problem with inner-city schools, quit right now and go on to Dorothy Dunne’s column. If you are interested, however, read on, for what Traub has to say might just change the way you look at this city’s educational process.

"What was not said (about the low reading scores), however, was the obvious: that the city districts that performed poorly like those that performed well scored almost exactly as the socioeconomic status of the children in them would have predicted. You could have predicted the fourth-grade test scores of all but one of the city’s 32 districts by knowing the percentage of the students in a given district who qualified for free lunch."

"How powerful can one institution (the local school) be in the face of the kinds of disadvantages that so many ghetto children bring with them to the schoolhouse door, and return to, at home? …There is little evidence that any existing strategy can close more than a fraction of the overall achievement gap separating children with low socioeconomic status from their wealthier, largely suburban counterparts."

"An alternative explanation (to the "Bell Curve," which says that educational inequality is rooted in biological inequity) is that educational inequality is rooted in socioeconomic and social pathologies too deep to be overcome by schools alone. And if that’s true, of course, then there is every reason to think about the limits of school, and to think about the other institutions we might have to mobilize to solve the problem. We might even ask ourselves whether there isn’t something disingenuous and self-serving in our professed faith in the omnipotence of school."

"(James Coleman) concluded that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school."

"Until the law (Title I) was amended in 1994, most school districts used their Title I money to offer additional instruction, mostly in reading, to students who were falling behind (Ed. Note: New York City continues to use that model); in effect, students took an extra half-hour class in reading every day, generally using the same methods that had already failed. The Title I results are even more unequivocal than those for Head Start (Ed note: Those results showed that Head Start instruction makes no difference in later educational expertise). A 1997 study conducted for the Department of Education concluded that there were no differences in growth between students who did and did not receive Title I assistance."

"School reform involves relatively little money, asks practically nothing of the non-poor and is accompanied by the ennobling sensation that comes from expressing faith in the capacity of the poor to overcome disadvantages by themselves."

"There is an overwhelming tendency in the public schools toward regression to the mean and not only because charismatic leaders are in short supply.

Thus, ‘Miracle in East Harlem,’ presents the moving story of administrators (Ed note: in school District 4) who, beginning in the mid-70’s produced an overwhelming transformation in America’s most famously blighted neighborhood by freeing schools from bureaucracy and forcing them to compete for students, creating schools and a school system that put children first…Certainly, school choice is a good idea, but since District 4 finished 24th out of 32 school districts last year on the state’s fourth grade reading test—slightly worse than its poverty rating would have predicted—either the approach itself or its application is less than revolutionary."

"More than 9,000 schools have adopted one of those designs (very expensive Comprehensive Reforms such as Success for All)…Success for All is about as close as schooling has gotten to medicine – to matching a treatment to the affliction, But this is a treatment, not a cure. Five years ago, 39 percent of the children at PS 159 (which uses SFA) were reading at grade level. After four years of Success For All, the figure has risen to 47 percent."

"The most effective solution – and the most unlikely one of all – is to move families out of the ghetto environment altogether. As Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist, puts it, ‘You can’t change the parents, but you can change the neighborhood." Katz points to the famous experiment in Chicago in which families were given subsidies to move from high-poverty neighborhoods to the suburbs. Studies have shown that children in those families were far more successful academically than would otherwise have been predicted…Katz’s early study found very large drops in incidents of misbehavior and sizable improvements both in the children’s physical health and in mother’s mental health."

"(Kenneth) Clark did not reckon with the cognitive harm done to children who grow up in a world without books or even stimulating games, whose natural curiosity is regularly squashed, who are isolated from the world beyond their neighborhood. A study carried out in the early 80’s at the University of Kansas reached the almost unfathomable conclusion that 3-year-olds in families with professional parents used more extensive vocabulary in daily interactions than did those whose mothers were on welfare. Here is a gap far greater even than the gulf income that separates the middle class from the poor; it is scarcely surprising that Coleman found that the effects of home and community blotted out almost all those of school."

"In their review of Coleman’s findings, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Frederick Mosteller, then both professors at Harvard, made this point explicitly. They cited psychologist Jerome Kagen to the effect that ‘difference in language and number competence between lower and middle-class children is awesome by the first grade.’ The critical task is thus to change the ecology of the lower-class child in order to increase the probability that he will be more successful in attaining normative skills."

"But, if the cognitive gap between black and white 5-year-olds has to do with human and social capital, children do or do not acquire at home or in the community – and not, or at least not principally with racism or unfair tests or cognitive styles – then we can’t do without the explicit language of values and behaviors. We have to unambiguously embrace the virtues of a ‘middle class parenting style.’ And prominent black figures have to weigh in against the anti-academic and even ‘oppositional’ peer culture that Gordon and others say is retarding black progress."

There is enough there to chew on for one week. It is clear from the article that schools cannot do it alone, that the social fabric must first be repaired. As I have often said, " it is the kids, stupid." Let’s leave it at that for this week. More in future columns.


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