‘The Limits of School Reform’

On Monday, The New York Times published a column about the dangers of thinking teachers can cure the disease of poverty in our public schools. The basic thesis of the piece is this: Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles a student faces when he is not in school and when his family is struggling economically.

While the idea that teachers cannot overcome all the issues in a student’s life makes sense to the majority of thinking people, it seems to be a fact forgotten by the education reform crowd, most of who seem to believe that “good teachers” can overcome any and all out-of-school issues faced by their students.

Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute lists dozens of reasons why this is so, from the more frequent illness and stress poor students suffer, to the fact that they don’t hear the large vocabularies that middle-class children hear at home.

Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant. “There is no question that family engagement can matter,” said [Joel] Klein,” the former superintendent of New York City’s public schools. “But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let’s go home. We don’t yet know how much education can overcome poverty,” he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. “To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”

Klein’s comments are illuminating, as they show the “us” vs. “them” mentality of education reformers across our country. While it is not clear who Klein means by “the other side,” it is clear that he, like most “reformers,” feels that anyone who says teachers are not 100% responsible for their student’s academic performance is probably “anti-reform.”

The fact of the issue is pretty simple, really. Kids in impoverished neighborhoods have needs that the school system generally cannot meet. In cases where the system is able to meet these needs, an enormous financial investment is made so the resources can be brought to bear on the community.

When placed in this context, the question is no longer about education reform. The question is about how do we reform our society so as to level the playing field for the “haves” as well as the “have nots.”

In Denver Public Schools, we know definitively that the ~$4,800 per student received by the school simply cannot possibly overcome the issues faced by our students whose families are struggling economically.

The column is definitely worth a read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *