Can do

Checker Finn’s “Fie on fatalism” attacks the idea that “schools are essentially powerless to accomplish much by way of learning gains, no matter what is done to or about them.” Liberals tend to argue that schools are helpless without lots more money or without massive social change. IQ determinists, who typically come from the right, think the kids just aren’t smart enough.

Chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry, it scarcely matters which flavor of fatalism you select. All send the same signal: that standards-based reform in general, and NCLB in particular, are doomed. That school choice can’t accomplish much, either. Indeed, that nothing within the realm of education policy and practice, or within the control of schools and those who work in them, is really capable of producing significant achievement gains.

But there are high-performing, high-poverty schools across the country, Finn writes, and we know quite a bit about why they succeed.

They have a clear mission, team spirit, a coherent curriculum and pedagogy (though these take many forms), talented teachers, and values that embrace success. They also benefit from strong leaders,

Many of them also muster more time on task: longer school days, weeks, and years, and teachers who are accessible during off hours. Which isn’t to say every “extended day” program yields higher achievement, only that high-achieving schools typically occupy a larger fraction of kids’ lives.

That’s both because these schools see the need for more teaching-and-learning time and because they want to keep their students off the streets. High-performance schools are reshaping poor kids’ aspirations, priorities, and peer groups while imparting cognitive skills and knowledge.

Finn is concerned about social forces that “push against more time-on-task,” including the anti-homework movement, union contracts and summer employers.

Upper middle-class parents worry that their children are running from school to sports to music lessons; they don’t have time for homework, much less to just relax. But children from low-income families aren’t stressing out on schoolwork or enriching activities; they live in neighborhoods where there are no safe places to play. They’re watching TV after school. They need more and better schooling.

As Finn writes, we won’t reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014, No Child Left Behind’s goal. But we’re starting at 30 percent proficiency (on NAEP exams). Do we really think it’s impossible to improve that?

About Joanne


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    What Finn seems to be saying, oh so nicely and not too clearly, is, “Many students in their natural environment are brought up badly. They develop habits and mindsets which will make it difficult for them to earn a good living. Schools should take them out of their natural environment for long periods of time and bring them up right.”

    He may be right, but that’s presumptuous in a lot of different ways.

  2. Some of the teachers in my school are fatalistic about their students’ potential outcomes. I think that, in some instances, the teachers come to believe this only after semester on semester of students placed in courses that simply refuse to attempt to learn even the bear minimums.

    In Math at my high school, we are phasing out Pre-algebra since that is a seventh grade standard in CA (maybe everywhere). Still, many students don’t see any point in learning Algebra and just won’t concentrate long enough to learn even the elemental parts, let alone the whole. Small classs size hasn’t helped. Veteran teachers haven’t helped. E.G. One Algebra teacher brought in (as NCLB suggests should happen) from teaching the advanced Math classes is now teaching Algebra and is sadly predicting that he might have not one person in the whole class pass his class this spring since the highest grade already is only a B- and most of the class is in the F range now, with the most challenging concepts yet to be introduced.

    It is these students that are fatalistic about their own future. Algebra must be passed to graduate. They aren’t doing the Algebra work. They know that they are in a school from which they WILL not and CAN not graduate.

    I fault to misguided “Standards” movement that became overly zealous to turn every human on the planet into a rocket scientist. They weren’t interested in answering the student that asked: “What if I don’t want to be a rocket scientist?”

    In a weird twist, I believe that increasing standards in Math will in fact increase our test scores though not for the best of reasons. Lower performing students will now more quickly drop out or move to alternative programs, leaving the more capable and motivated students to take the tests.

  3. “overly zealous to turn every human on the planet into a rocket scientist”…there are plenty of jobs other than “rocket scientist” that require either algebra or the habits of mind developed from studying algebra.

    “Educators” are quick to blame the wider society for their failures, but don’t seem to take much responsibility for their own contributions to the problem.

  4. The “Can’t Do” philosophy is widespread at the university level also. That’s one reason that decentralization is important: the more centralized the bureaucracy, the heavier the dead hand of “can’t do” rests on the entire institution. But when semi-autonomous or even fully-autonomous units are created, then innovations and innovators are more likely to survive (and with luck, to have their innovations spread). But the amount of energy the “can’t do” crowd invests in throwing up obstacles is indeed remarkable.

  5. Algebra 1 isn’t rocket science, and any educator that treats it as rocket science, as a gate through which only the annointed ones can pass, contributes to the problem.

  6. In response to the comments above, I will recant of my hyperbole in my above post which equated success in Algebra 1 with being at the door of a NASA engineering job. My point became obscured. Let me clarify : If anyone doesn’t want to learn something, no program or graduation requirement or … will help them learn.

    I personally don’t think the Algebra trains the mind anymore than many other topics.

    I don’t think that my school has a “can’t do” attitude. However, some of our students do have just such a response to Algebra and other subjects. However, Algebra happens to be required. God help the edublog community when a US President in the future that is so inclined ties NCLB funding to seven years of some non-rational skill set as a requirement for high school graduation (Art? Operatic signing? Basketball three point shooting? Interpersonal skills?). Requiring a skill set of someone that isn’t interested in the topic because the intellectual community thinks it trains the mind or may be needed in the future is fine, but be aware that many subjects train the mind, and many subjects may be needed in the future. But I don’t agree that every human needs to be success in Algebra to later succeed in life.

    I guess that I am frustrated by simplistic answers on the topics of educational freedom. From the very community that should be about student/parent choice frequently comes the most rigid schooling standards. In a time when the US Dept of Ed. lists 70,000 job titles in the US alone, it might be possible that Algebra or any other advanced topic may be overemphasized by some.

  7. Wayne Martin says:

    Public education in the US has been chugging along since about 1850. It’s astounding how few people can agree on its goals, or how to implement those goals.

    > Homework is the most economical way for a school to stretch
    > kids’ learning time, albeit not necessarily the most effective
    > (nor best at keeping them off the streets).

    Hmm .. well-designed homework is intended to determine how successfully the student has engaged and mastered the topic at hand. Homework scores should be seen as the first determinant of the student’s progress.

    > Even if 100 percent proficiency by 2014 is dreamy

    2014 is an impossibility to achieve nationwide educational “proficiency”, since there are few who will agree what “proficiency” is. Further, it makes sense that as the floor of educational attainment raises, so should the roof.

    > Combatting the determinists and fatalists is a
    > multi-front war. But one well worth
    > fighting–and winning.

    OK .. so this is a nice sales pitch for someone in an educational think tank environment. The problem is getting the decision makers on-board with some evidence that the schools that Finn thinks are “working’ can be replicated in every state (and then the world), economically and repeatedly, year after year.

  8. It is sad that someone in education should have the idea that it is reasonable for any student to fail Algebra I. That’s the next basic step after – * and /.

    If students are flunking that, then they don’t know – * and /. And their prior “educators” should be personally billed for the cost of the education they failed to provide.

  9. Perhaps we need to remember the phenomenon of forgetting. Even if a student has “passed” Algebra I and II and Geometry over 4 years of high school, there is a good chance that most has been forgotten by early college. Especially at community colleges and non-competitive admission 4-year colleges, there is likely to be a need to re-teach if the student is to really understand the concepts. And it may well be possible for a student to complete college with only minimal math skills — even if they have to be re-learned on the job when the skills finally become relevant.

  10. From direct experience, the kids have been ill-prepared in arithmetic. Part of the problem is that you’re on a curriculum railroad, and if you don’t get one arithmetic concept in the scheduled time, oops – time to move on. Math is a lot more cumulative as a subject compared to others. If you’ve got a “hole” in your math, it is really tough to get around when you get to later levels. The biggest problem seems to be with division: long division, fractions, percentages. I have met many a calc student who couldn’t deal with fractions that had actual numbers in them (much less those with variables).

    Also, it’s nice to pooh-pooh the “IQ fatalists”, but there really are limits to what people of lower IQ can learn. Those limits may be higher than what is normally understood by said IQ fatalists and educrats, but they do exist. I remember sitting in on my Grandma’s special ed class (about ages 13-15), and those kids had some severe restrictions when it came to comprehension. The regular standards would have been pointless for these students. Yes, they could learn some basic addition and subtraction, and some basic reading, but they couldn’t do something like follow the cause-effect relationships in a basic plot. Stories just seemed a bunch of disconnected events.

    This is not to say my Grandma wasn’t trying to get them to learn to see these things (“why did Spot run?”), and in an earlier time, they probably would have been considered totally uneducable as it took them so long to achieve even the most basic of skills.

    My point is that there are many topics that can be learned, but that it will take different students different amounts of effort in terms of time and homework in general. Given one has a limited amount of time with any student, is it appropriate to push everybody in the direction of calculus, or should statistics, accounting, discrete math and the like be more useful and appropriate? Also, with math, I think that there should be frequent checks that the students have retained earlier info, because it gets to be depressing to be dealing with calculus students who claim not to know how to calculate the area of a circle.

  11. “it gets to be depressing to be dealing with calculus students who claim not to know how to calculate the area of a circle”

    Make them derive the formula by a double integration…

    Not everyone has to know algebra, but too many otherwise bright students leave high school not even understanding grade school arithmetic. E.g., one of the engineers here had to show the clerk entering purchase orders how to find the price “each” when a reel of 3,000 parts costs $500.

  12. Hunter McDaniel says:

    The question I have for the fatalists is this. If schools are incapable of affecting outcomes, isn’t the logical conclusion that we should just shut them down and save the money?

  13. tim from texas says:

    This subject also relates to dropouts. There is really no place in our ed system for dropouts to fall. No one can be proficient in everything, but everyone can be proficient to a degree in something. Our system doesn’t address this problem.

    In addition, a good percentage of dropouts are really bright kids. They don’t drop as hard of course, but more could be done for them also.

  14. Cardinal Fang says:

    About the homework wars– couldn’t it be the case that there really is too much homework at the upper middle class schools where parents are complaining there is too much homework, and also, at the same time, too little homework at the low-performing schools?

  15. Roger Sweeney: What Finn seems to be saying, oh so nicely and not too clearly, is, “Many students in their natural environment are brought up badly. They develop habits and mindsets which will make it difficult for them to earn a good living. Schools should take them out of their natural environment for long periods of time and bring them up right.”

    He may be right, but that’s presumptuous in a lot of different ways.

    call me made, but isn’t that roughly what schools were set up to do in the first place?

    Okay, learning to read the bible may have been as important an objective initially as earning a good living. But still, schools were introduced out of the belief that many parents were not bringing up their children well, so you’d take them out of their parent’s environments for many hours each week and teach them the things their parents wouldn’t or couldn’t teach them?

    I mean, what’s the point of a school if it’s not going to teach the students things different from what they’ll encounter at home?

  16. Roger Sweeny says:

    Tracy W,

    I’m sure that was part of the motivation for having mandatory public schools. But can you imagine any politician saying that today? And if no politician is going to say it, what are the odds that it will actually happen?

  17. I haven’t heard of any politicians arguing the school day or year should be decreased. Schools do take students out of their natural environment for long periods of time. And presumably voters not only agree to this but support it through taxes because they think kids are going to learn things at school they wouldn’t learn at home – and voters believe it is good for kids to learn those things.

    Now what these things are may vary from person to person and from politician to politician. We can I think all agree that universal literacy is a good thing. The rest of the list keeps changing, I have heard people advocate a vast range of things that schools should do, from teaching kids not to be racist, to teaching them to recycle, or stop their parents smoking, or cook healthy food, or vote in elections, or computer skills, or calculus, or a second language, or etc. The only reason I can think of to advocate schools teaching these things is the belief that at least some parents will fail to teach these kids these things at home.

  18. The March Atlantic Monthly disappointed me at their web site: they did not see fit to post an article by Clive Crook on cheap private schools in the third world that “are educating poor children — but without much encouragement fromthe international aid establishment.” He writes about the research of one James Tooley who found that “private education is a principal lifeline for the abjectly poor. In the areas of Ghana and Nigeria what tooley’s team has canvassed, an outright majority of poor children are attending private schools run without support from the government. Often theschools are run by just a few teachers. They put out shingles in the way that physicians do in the United States, and are paid directly by their charges.”

    Apparently Mr. Tooley is forming a foundation to aid and promote such schooling, along the lines of microfinancing. Maybe he should take a look at the USA, while he’s about it.

  19. Roger Sweeny says:

    Tracy W

    My comment a few up was terrible and the software wouldn’t let me post a follow-up.

    When politicians talk about what school can do, they are usually talking about information. Teachers know more than parents about lots of things, so teachers teach them. There’s quite a bit to learn so it takes a long time.

    Finn seems to be saying that schools have to do a lot more than impart information. They have to undo bad attitudes and habits that children have learned growing up. More time in school means more time to unlearn bad habits–and it means less time in the environments that gave them the bad habits in the first place.

    A politician would never say the things in the last paragraph.

  20. tim from texas says:

    Kids can’t escape the bad environnents. They are everywhere. How can they escape? Bad habits are crammed down their throats. Enough bad habits are picked up in the best of invirons. Our method of doing business and education makes picking up bad habits mandatory.

    Lemon-kids aren’t and can’t be replaced like lemon-cars, and can’t be easily nor cheaply repaired. Our assembly line is the problem, not the kids.

  21. No one can teach someone who doesn’t want to learn. That what’s missing in the who should be responsible if the kids don’t learn Algebra argument. Almost anyone who wants to learn Algebra and will work problems, concentrate, pay attention to instruction, and practice can learn Algebra even without a remarkable teacher. However, no one can teach Algebra to someone indifferent to learning it. AND forget the idea that a teacher can somehow make a subject engaging. NO, some people will not be engaged by anything that requires concentration and hard work.

    Personally, yes, I’d be willing to let kids who aren’t willing do the work and and willing to try to learn drop out or I’d kick them out and make their parents responsible for educating them. We could all save money on schools, but we’d probably spend more or jails.

    Does everyone comment on this thread realize that kids can’t flunk out of high school? They are entitled to suck up your tax money until they are 21 as long as they keep showing up. They don’t have to work hard; they don’t have to pass. They don’t have to do anything to meet anyone half way.

  22. Finn seems to be saying that schools have to do a lot more than impart information. They have to undo bad attitudes and habits that children have learned growing up. More time in school means more time to unlearn bad habits–and it means less time in the environments that gave them the bad habits in the first place.

    A politician would never say the things in the last paragraph.

    A politician wouldn’t say it that bluntly.

    But, what do calls for schools to teach values, or social justice, or healthy eating mean but the same as what you describe? Schools should undo bad attitudes and/or habits that children have learned growing up.