Building better berries

At the NCLBlog, AFTie John retells the Blueberry Story, which makes the point that schools can’t be run like an ice cream company because school officials can’t reject bad berries. Eduwonk points out the story implicitly blames children for being bad berries who can’t be improved.

That undercurrent is the notion that since schools can’t pick their “products” the way an ice cream factory can pick its blueberries holding them accountable for their outputs is simplistic and wrongheaded. . . .This is a view that the AFT has in the past vocally rejected. Al Shanker once quipped something to the effect of when you lose a quarter of your products before they reach the end of the assembly line and another quarter don’t work right when they get there then it’s not time for tweaking, it’s time to get a new assembly line.

How can we build better berries? Richard Rothstein, former a New York Times columnist, has ideas, though maybe not realistic ideas. Schools can’t narrow the achievement gap on their own, writes Rothstein, now at the Economic Policy Institute, in a WestEd paper. He advocates raising wages for low-paying jobs, improving housing, providing health clinics at schools, high-quality child care and preschool, after school and summer programs to provide more stability and enrichment for low-income children. He argues “funding these reforms would be more effective in narrowing achievement gaps than concentrating resources solely on traditional, stand-alone school reform efforts such as smaller class size and higher teacher pay.”

I don’t think government income or housing programs can do much to make poor children’s lives more stable. Remember the Great Society? I’d invest in improving K-12 schools and then funding quality preschool (see Quebec caveats) and a longer school day and year for disadvantaged children.

Update: At Education News, Kevin Kosar writes that we can’t educate all children to proficiency because we don’t know how to change lower-class culture or parents’ nurturing skills.

A lot more children from not-so-good homes would be competent students if they attended safe, orderly schools focused on academic achievement and staffed by good teachers. We don’t know who or how many are irredeemably bad berries. Why give up on them before we start?

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Interesting. Before I got to the second sentence, I assumed the “bad berries” were the teachers…

  2. photoncourier.blogspot.com says:

    Blueberries are one possible analogy; I prefer a different one.
    Penny in the Fusebox

  3. You know, I think a conceptual change might be in order here. Instead of thinking of children as berries coming in, think about kindergarten as a place where you grow berries (a.k.a. students) who are ready to succeed in the classroom. Assume the kids coming into kindergarten know NOTHING, including how to sit still and listen, and start from there. Yes, it might be boring for some, but it’s a far better starting point than guess at what students know coming in and trying to control for what other experiences they’ve had.

  4. Eduwonk points out the story implicitly blames children for being bad berries who can’t be improved.

    Not exactly. Not implicitly. Eduwonk took pains, in the part you omitted, to note that there is no implicit “blame the children” element in the blueberry story. (Your use of ellipses here is telling.)

    Here’s the part of the Eduwonk post you left out:

    That may not be its author’s intent, but it is how it is used. [Update: To be clear I also mean how it is used in its public usage, not how AFTie John was using it here, which isn’t exactly clear. My point was merely that it is disconcerting that he didn’t take a line to point out that this undercurrent exists and, hopefully, reject it.]

    I’m willing to concede that my prose didn’t convey my purpose for retelling the blueberry story, though I think people as wise as you and Eduwonk could have gleaned it had you read my piece to the end, which I invite you and your readers to do. It’s here: http://www.letsgetitright.org/blog/2006/06/blueberries_and_the_business_o.html.

  5. Andy Freeman says:

    The “we don’t control our inputs” argument is intended to shield public education from any performance-based funding. It doesn’t.

    We pay for public education for the difference it makes. If it can’t make a difference, there’s no point in paying for it.

    Public education advocates should reconsider their “we can’t do anything” stance, because its logical consequence is “then there’s no point in giving you any money”.

  6. I appreciate the need to backpedal but let’s look at another part of your piece which you neglected to mention in the service of clarifying your intent:

    But when students coming to a school don’t have the skills or supports they should have, schools accept those students–they can’t send them back.

    Now perhaps you can clarify the actual intent of that sentence but why bother? The meaning of the sentence is incontestable: better students in means better results out, your explanation, such as it is, notwithstanding.

    I can understand your desire to have it both ways. Union members, largely, will buy into the sentiment. After all, who hasn’t had to deal with a kid who uses the eff word as punctuation without the slightest recognition of the word as anything remotely unacceptable? So there’s an element of truth about the bad “blueberries” with which you’re expected to make first-class ice cream.

    On the other hand, it’s also a case of blaming the victim which isn’t acceptable outside the teacher’s lounge.

    So what’s a lad supposed to do?

  7. Twill00 says:

    Maybe blueberries going into ice cream aren’t the best analogy – perhaps oranges would be better? We take the varied oranges as input, we sort them, the ones that are too tart we use for baking, the ones that are nice and sweet get juiced, and so on.

    What we don’t do, is pass them on to our customers undifferentiated and expect our customers (the next teacher down the road, or the society outside) to deal with the mess. We don’t mix them all together and let the rotten ones spoil the good ones. The ones we can’t use for anything we sell as mulch.

    Until so-called “educators” are willing to be as strict with kids who disrupt a class as they are with kids who give each other aspirin, they have no cause to complain about their input having bad blueberries.

  8. At the risk of sounding naively contrarian, I think there is a fundamental flaw in the Blueberry story. Student are not blueblerries; if anything, the blueberries are faculty and staff, and should be rejected when sub-par. Students and parents are more like customers buying (and perhaps helping to make) the ice cream of education.

  9. Indigo Warrior says:

    Maybe blueberries going into ice cream aren’t the best analogy – perhaps oranges would be better?

    Maybe apples and oranges would be better? Or apples, oranges, grapefruits, watermelons, bananas, avocados, papayas, et al?

    Until so-called “educators” are willing to be as strict with kids who disrupt a class as they are with kids who give each other aspirin, they have no cause to complain about their input having bad blueberries.

    It goes further than that. The educators first need to be strict with the kids who disrupt other kids. The educators need to have enough intelligence and knowledge to know the difference between disruption and asking difficult questions.