Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Educational Recession

David Sirota had a piece on Salon yesterday, in which he claimed that two distinct camps seem to be emerging in the debate over future education policy. And Sirota firmly sides with one of these camps. The side that he privileges and takes to be uniquely supported by research data claims, in his words,
"that larger social ills such as poverty, joblessness, economic despair and lack of health coverage negatively affect educational achievement, and that until those problems are addressed, schools will never be able to produce the results we want."
Those on the other side, Sirota says, "want to radically change (read: charterize and/or privatize) public education under the premise that the primary problems are bad/lazy teachers and 'unaccountable' school administrators."

Naturally, I hold a view closer to that of Sirota than that of his opponents, but still, when I read the contrasting positions, my first thought in response was, "Those are our only options?" Why do the two views have to be presented in direct opposition to each other? Might not the actual quality of education and the circumstances surrounding schools both have some effect on student performance?

Sirota writes as if he is personally offended when those from the second group, whom he calls, with evident bitter irony, "reformers" assert that educators may be accountable for the performance of their students. He also cites a new report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which he believes disproves the ideas of the "reformers" and upholds those of their opponents on the other side of the debate. The report says, in short, that job losses in a particular region are directly correlated with decreases in student performance in that same area.

Sirota is right that this disproves one theory, but he is wrong to think that it clearly upholds the other. He and the authors of the report themselves interpret the findings to mean that economic losses are the direct cause of subsequent reductions in test scores. They write and Sirota highlights the claims that
“Statewide job losses, which occur from factors external to schools, such as pressure from globalization and stock market fluctuations, can significantly influence student achievement and are well beyond the control of teachers and school administrators.”
But the correlated figures are not themselves support for this assertion. It could just as well be the case that economic downturns affect local teachers just as well as they do the families of students, and that consequently increased stress and distraction, along with probable reductions in resources are affecting teachers’ job performances, thus leading to less effective teaching being provided to the students.

Sirota even emphasizes a portion of the study that points out that economic hardships affect students as a whole, not only those whose parents were directly impacted by job loss. To Sirota, this evidently confirms that the influence of socio-economic factors on students is too strong to be able to be counteracted by teachers. To me, however, it just indicates that the entire community is affected by those factors. If that is the case, perhaps teachers can still be faulted for not adjusting their teaching to reflect the different demands of harder times. And certainly government as a whole can be faulted for not doing enough to uphold the structure of education in the midst of those hardships.

I strongly support Sirota’s idea that the larger social problems are primary and must be addressed first. I am particularly fond of his introduction of the phrase “The Great Education Myth,” which he defines as “the wrongheaded idea that if we just fix our schools, all of our other social problems will miraculously disappear.” I am painfully familiar with that kind of thinking, and it frustrates me to no end. So I applaud Sirota on general principles, but I cannot support the idea that the facts of the case somehow absolve teachers and school administrators from responsibility for seeing that students reach the standards we expect.

Sirota’s perspective on this subject seems compassionate and socially just when you describe it as advocacy for defeating poverty in the interest of improving students’ odds of a good education. His view seems less laudable, however, when you think of it this way: He is essentially saying that the reason certain kids are performing poorly is because they’re stupid, but that it’s okay, because it isn’t their fault that they’re stupid, it’s just that economic factors make them bad students.

When I was reading this article, I was especially shocked by the information that Diane Ravitch, who is evidently at the forefront of Sirota’s favored side of the education debate, had won this year’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize. That is not to say that I was shocked that she had been granted such an award, or that I have any reason for thinking that she is undeserving of it or any other like it. What was shocking to me was the very idea that there is a prize bearing the name of Daniel Patrick Moynihan that might be given for advocacy with regard to education, poverty, or race.

This is, after all, a man who wrote in a 1965 report on “The Negro Family”:
“At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of weakness of the Negro community at the present time… Unless this damage is repaired, all the effort to end discrimination and poverty and injustice will come to little.”

In other words, it’s their fault. Society is fine, and the only responsibility of the most privileged among us is to try to convince the downtrodden to become better so they can reap the benefits of the mainstream society that has been so good to the rest of us.

On second thought, if the view embodied by Ravitch and praised by Sirota is that teachers’ performances cannot be impugned, but poverty is making entire communities of students dumb, perhaps a prize named for the late Senator Moynihan is exactly the right recognition for her.

The quotation above I transcribed from a book that I was fortunate enough to find not long ago. Its title is a phrase that I had been using for many years before I knew that this book existed, though it was published in 1971, well over a decade before my birth. It is by William Ryan, and it is called Blaming the Victim, and the observations that it makes give me comfort by demonstrating that I’m not the only one who has noticed this social tendency. On the other hand, it makes me profoundly sad that in in four entire decades, very little has changed. We have perhaps developed the idea, and it has perhaps grown more nuanced, but at base even the most liberal elements of society are still strongly inclined to place the blame for people’s problems squarely on the backs of those who are suffering them.

Perhaps we could share that burden instead. Without a doubt, poverty and such thoroughly harmful social ills need to be addressed before the more particular problems. But in the meantime, we ought to be trying harder to do the best we can in spite of those difficulties. When it comes to education, that means figuring out how to teach in a way that better engages both the educator and the student, regardless of their hardships, rather than shrugging our shoulders and reconciling to the fact that kids just aren't going to be as well educated if there's a recession.