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 schoolâ€™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and advocates has begun to argue that the longstanding and sharp conceptual divide between school and not-school is out of date.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 childrenâ€™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.