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?