Beyond schools

Democrats are split on education, writes Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine. Teachers’ unionists want to protect job security and dump testing and accountability; reformers advocate “performance bonuses, less protection for low-performing teachers, alternative certification programs to attract young, ambitious teachers and flexible contracts that could allow for longer school days and an extended school year.” Barack Obama has tried to appeal to both sides. But Obama wants to go far beyond schools, Tough thinks.

The American social contract has always identified public schools as the one place where the state can and should play a role in the process of child-rearing. Outside the school’s walls (except in cases of serious abuse or neglect), society is seen to have neither a right nor a responsibility to intervene. But a new and growing movement of researchers and advocates has begun to argue that the longstanding and sharp conceptual divide between school and not-school is out of date. It ignores, they say, overwhelming evidence of the impact of family and community environments on children’s achievement.

Tough cites James J. Heckman, a University of Chicago economist and “informal Obama adviser,” who argues that poor children need to develop “skills are both cognitive (the ability to read and compute) and noncognitive (the ability to stick to a schedule, to delay gratification and to shake off disappointments).” Heckman thinks that can be done with early intervention that continues as the child grows up.

Obama has backed preschool, visiting nurse programs and “Promise neighborhoods” modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone that provide parenting classes, health care and a web of social supports. But this vision would require billions of dollars, even as a 20-city experiment, Obama concedes. Would he fight for it? And if he’s spending billions more on social services, could he also spend billions more on K-12 schools?

Tough’s new book, Whatever It Takes, looks at the Harlem Children’s Zone, which includes a successful charter elementary school and a not very successful charter middle school.

Update: “Education reformers who are unable to build a rickshaw” and trying to “design a Ferrari,” writes Liam Julian on Flypaper.

About Joanne


  1. I don’t disagree regarding the value of early childhood education, visiting nurses, access to health care, nutrion, libraries, and all the things it takes–from a societal standpoint, to ensure that all kids have a shot at success, not only in school, but in life. My problem with “the problem” as it is currently being framed (by NEA, AFT, generally the Bolder Broader folks), is that it is taking focus away from the enormous disparities between what happens in (public) schools where poor kids go and the (public) schools where upper middle class kids go. We are not in the habit of providing equitable education, but we want to fault the broader social services for the differences in achievement.

    The Harlem Children’s Zone is a valuable experiment. I believe, however that England has not found its broad scale experiment with education action zones to have yielded the hoped for results. I would also suggest that many of the same schools where low-income kids are underachieving are light-years away from being able to forge the kids of school/parent and school/community relationships that are required to be able to reap the benefits of access to improved services. In short the “school/not school” divide is rigorously maintained from within the school.

    The countries that appear to be able to impact the socio-economic divide through the provision of services outside of school are those countries which have acknowledged access to such things as a fundamental right of children in their society. All children have a right to safe and adequate housing. All children have a right to appropriate health care. All children have a right to be cared for in a safe and developmentally appropriate facility while their parents work. These rights extend as well to new-comers (consider Finland, as an example).

    We don’t in this country truly accept these tenets. Only recently have we made an attempt to insure medical coverage for children, child care is a patchwork, support for housing for people with low income has eroded tremendously in recent years. We prefer that people with low income live somewhere off to themselves. We look down on people who receive food stamps, or medicaid. We chalk poverty up to “poor choices,” and believe that the poor only get what they deserve.

    Teachers are in the unfortunate position of being beneficiaries of this situation (that is, they are employed persons, “entitled” to something better than many of their students), at the same time they are charged with “up-lifting” their students to some more deserving status. It is no wonder that they hole up in a school building that defends itself from the surrounding community with fences, locks, guards, and attitudes. But it is also no wonder that they cannot connect, then, with the resources (such as they are) of those communities, and unite with community residents to acknowledge the unfair distribution of everything that our society has to offer.

  2. Andy Freeman says:

    Note that none of the “comprehensive” countries are successfully handling a meaningful percentage of their population. The poor in Chicago alone would be about 20% of Finland’s total population.

    And then there’s the whole “diversity” thing. Ethnic diversity in Finland is a Swedish family down the block, and they’re considered Swedish because they’ve only been in Finland for 3 generations.

  3. Andy: Finland is currently providing “mother tongue” instruction in about 50 languages. Not sure what you mean by “successfully handling a meaningful percentage of their population.”

  4. Andy Freeman says:

    It’s not the number of other languages, it’s the percentage of the population in the classes.

    And, 50 isn’t all that big a number. How many languages does Chicago try to teach in?

  5. I am guessing that Chicago, like most of the US, primarily teaches in English, with support or accommodation for ESL students. Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore recognize the importance of actually teaching IN the mother tongue, in order to maintain that language and support the ability to learn content. They learn a national language as a second language. But learning a second language is an expectation of all students.

  6. Andy Freeman says:

    And Finland’s schools teach primarily in ….

    The claim was that Finland was diverse because it offers “mother tongue” teaching in 50 languages. When I point out that Chicago does the same, suddenly “primary” becomes important, except that so is bilingual.

    Chicago is roughly half black. LA is majority Latino.

    Finland’s “diversity” is primarily other Scandanavians. We don’t even bother to distinguish them.

  7. Unless I am mistaken, Chicago does not offer instruction in “mother tongue” nor does most of the United States. We are deeply committed to the idea that there should be one American language. The focus of ESL is to teach that one American language, thus enabling students to understand the content that is taught (primarily–allowing for the occasional bilingual or immersion in a non-English second language) in that one American language.

    Finland has three National languages, Finnish, Swedish and Sami. They have populations of Romany, Somali, Russian and other groups. Their teaching methodology is to provide content instruction in one’s mother tongue, providing instruction in the second language as we would provide a second language to any student (except, of course, they begin instruction at a much younger age).

    Singapore has some similarities, having three major population/language groups: Chinese, Indian and Malay. Each of these groups has divergent language roots. On top of it all, as a British colony, an elite of English speakers developed over the years. They have chosen to maintain Mandarin as a unifying dialect (and students are taught in that language–that is, it is the language in which they are taught content), but also to provide instruction via English. Again, early second language instruction is a part of their education.

    BTW, the fact that we don’t distinguish between the Finnish groups seems to say more about us, than about them; just as we tend to lump all Hispanics together, all Asians together, etc.

  8. Unless I am mistaken, Chicago does not offer instruction in ‘mother tongue’ nor does most of the United States.

    Can you clarify what you mean here? Is your observation that we don’t offer K-12 education in Hmong and Russian, and Tamil, and dozens of other languages?

    -Mark Roulo

  9. “We are deeply committed to the idea that there should be one American language.”

    You could’ve fooled me.

    “The focus of ESL is to teach that one American language…”

    No, that’s why Ron Unz gutted California’s bilingual program.

  10. Mark: I would be very interested to know any district that is offering K-12 education in Hmong, Russian or Tamil. I am not saying that NOWHERE in the US is it happening–after all, we have 50 states and each state delegates a whole lot of decision-making to local school boards. But I would still contend that what we offer is pretty much confined to stop-gap measures with the expectation that the ESL training will kick in and the student can then be instructed in English. I don’t know of anywhere in the United States that has adopted a similar stance that it is important to maintain a student’s native language, and to use it for instruction in other content areas, while teaching English as a second language.

  11. But I would still contend that what we offer is pretty much confined to stop-gap measures with the expectation that the ESL training will kick in and the student can then be instructed in English.

    Yes, this is what we have. I just want to understand what would constitute ‘mother tongue’ instruction for you. Would only educating the Spanish speakers in Spanish for K-12 count? Or do we have to do everyone? Or the top-10 groups? Or what? Top-50 in this country could well include Hmong and Russian …

    -Mark Roulo

  12. Mark: It is not the number of languages that are being offered. It is whether that native language is being used as the Medium of Instruction (to use the term from Hong Kong). Do you know of schools that are teaching any language groups in their native language as the primary medium of instruction throughout their K-12 experience?

  13. Do you know of schools that are teaching any language groups in their native language as the primary medium of instruction throughout their K-12 experience?


    We *used* to do this in California (weren’t supposed to, but it was common), but this has *mostly* gone away. The problem in California, and the thing that motivated getting rid of this, was that the kids were *NOT* learning English. This is fine if one wants inexpensive landscapers, but not so good if one wants the kids to be able to get reasonable jobs.

    -Mark R.

  14. Andy Freeman says:

    Note that Margo continues to duck “what percentage of the folks are being taught in those ‘mother tongues’?”

    The fact remains that Finland is teaching a far less diverse population than Fresno.

    Finland is less diverse than the least diverse US state. As a result, they can do things that we can’t do.

    However, I will say that the Finish Rock Band, the Leningrad Cowboys, had one of the best closing numbers ever at one of their Moscow shows.

    They played “Sweet Home Alabama”, backed by the Red Army Band, the Russian equivalent of the USMC Band.

  15. 100% of students in Finland are taught in their “mother tongue” (which is why the cover so many langugage). In Singapore, I believe it is close to that, although the picture gets confusing because of the number of dialects, and the move by the government to urge adoption of Mandarin (following the lead of the Chinese government) for the official language of school for those of Chinese descent, coupled with the polyglot nature of their educational system over time. Most children are immersed in more than one language before they enter school.

  16. Andy Freeman says:

    Don’t be dense.

    You argued that teaching in 50 “mother tongues” was evidence of diversity. It’s not unless a significant number of people are being taught in a “mother tongue” that isn’t the country’s dominant language. For all we know, it’s one student for each of the 49 not-Finnish languages.

    I suspect that the vast majority of students being taught in not-Finnish languages are being taught in other Scandanavian languages.

    Finland is less diverse than Minnesota.

  17. You’re right, Andy. America has nothing to learn from any other country who is outscoring us. They don’t have our problems and our problems cannot be overcome.

  18. For anyone who might disagree with Andy about the futility of learning from the successful experiences of other countries, I suggest the following:

    It devotes a chapter to the Finnish experience with education for its immigrant population, and a discussion of the language of instruction for those students. Singapore also has language policy worth examining, as their population consists of so many language groups.

  19. Andy Freeman says:

    And now Margo is simply making things up.

    I never said that the US had nothing to learn from other countries. I pointed out that Finland is dealing with a very different situation than the US. It’s easy to have special education for 3 kids at a 100 kid school. It’s hard to have special education for 35 kids at a 100 kid school, or, as is the case in the US, 2-300 kids at a 500 kid school.

    Margo doesn’t seeom to find that relevant, which is another way of saying “one size fits all”.

  20. And Andy will of course provide an example of a school having 60% kids with disabilities (300 out of 500).

    There are, of course those, who would argue that it is far simpler to provide special education in a setting where all/most of the students have special needs.

    One might also ask how it is that a school has such a concentration of students with disabilities–one might want to involve the CDC in diagnosing an epidemic of whatever it is that is causing this situation.