Poor schools or poor kids?

In Poor Schools or Poor Kids? on Education Next,  Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform speaks for the Education Equality Project (accountability, pay reform, choice) while Pedro Noguera gives the Broader, Bolder perspective (preschool, health care, nutrition, parent training) on improving K–12 schooling.

Noguera:  There are schools across the country—some are charter, some are private, and many are traditional public—that have shown us that it is possible for poor children to achieve at high levels when we respond to their needs and create conditions that are conducive to learning. . . . Many, though not all, schools that succeed with poor children devise strategies to mitigate the effects of poverty with site-based social services and extended learning opportunities. . . .

Williams: While we are very sympathetic to the obstacles that impoverished children face to their physical, emotional, and educational development, and support policies to address these deficiencies, we believe that when conditions outside of the classroom are less than stellar, it is even more important that we get the schooling piece right.

I side with Williams on this argument. Schools facing huge challenges need to keep their eyes (and resources) on the ball, which is academic achievement.

Noguera calls for creating education inspectors to evaluate schools based on qualitative measures as well as test scores; inspectors would provide detailed recommendations for improvement.

Curriculum is mentioned only once in the discussion, notes Core Knowledge Blog, which headlines its post, Blather, Rinse, Repeat.

About Joanne


  1. I lean towards Williams too, but it’s a classic false dichotomy. We certainly should keep our eye on the ball as Joanne suggests, but the mischief comes when we literally expect every single child to achieve at a high level, regardless of their deficits or their willingless even to show up and make an effort–and label the teachers and schools failures when they fail to measure up to the tender-hearted Hollywood myth. I’m likewise skeptical about the idea of turning schools into community service centers, a la Broader, Bolder. I’d be more inclined to agree if there was evidence that schools were succeeding in their primary mission before I agreed to layer on additional services.

    Well all is done and said, one side in this argument holds that schools should make up for every deficit; the other holds that accountability is a myth until we alleviate the worst effects of poverty. The argument is symptomatic of a field that wants simple answers and seems uncomfortable with human complexity. We will neither yell nor coddle our way to a solution.

    As the admittedly churlish tone and title of my post indicates, I find this entire debate tedious and unsatisfying (Arne Duncan may have signed both groups’ manifestos last year, but I signed neither). Based on my experience teaching in the South Bronx, I think neither side in this debate has it right. There are no magic bullets, but the single biggest factor holding back students in my classroom and school was not a lack of accountability. Neither was it a failure to consider the whole child. It was the lack of a well-rounded, rich curriculum. My students, even those that were nominally well-educated based on the results of their test scores were spectacularly undereducated. I’d prefer to see the effects of giving low-SES children the same robust education more affluent children enjoy and take for granted before drawing any conclusions about why it is or is not working. Both sides seem blind to this.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Wouldn;t the same “robust education more affluent children enjoy and take for granted” mean that more time should be spent on field trips?

    My husband and I regularly take our kids to Aquariums, Zoos, Museums, Historic sites and state parks. Not as ‘education,’ but because we enjoy them, and want our children to enjoy them too—

    But what about kids who grow up in the inner city and seldom leave their neighborhoods? The ones whose parents DON’T have a love of those things? To give them the same ‘education’ that their wealthier peers get would probably mean a 6-day school week– five for instruction, and one for the sort of ‘education’ that higher SES kids get just because their parents have a different idea of what ‘recreation’ entails.

    Also, you’d probably need a longer school day to make up for the lack of read-alouds at home. Part of the reason higher SES kids do better, even on a blah curriculum, is because a lot of their cultural education and background knowledge comes from the home– as long as the school doesn’t mess up on writing and arithmatic, the parents can provide the rest…..

    For the lower SES kids, a core is important, but we need to make sure the core also includes trips that broaden their horizon and teach them to enjoy all the rich cultural offerings available to them…..

  3. I don’t disagree with a word you wrote, Dierdre. What I disagree with is NOT giving low-SES kids those things, then wondering why they don’t do as well as affluent kids and dismissing the teachers. There are far more moving parts than either EEP or Broader, Bolder seem to want to allow for.

  4. I would like to see all states adopt California’s practice of giving schools 2 rankings based on test scores. The first is an absolute ranking and the second compares schools with only those of similar demographics. That way underperforming affluent schools (like the one my kids are zoned to attend) don’t get a free pass and schools that do a good job educating disadvantaged students aren’t unfairly dinged.

  5. Oh Robert, I have to wonder whether you take what your write seriously. The problem is that the expectations are too high? That we expect every single child to achieve at a high level being the underlying cause of why so many children achieve at such a low level? Dang, you’d think a couple of decades of having those expectations disappointed might have had, you should pardon the expression, an educational effect. Apparently not.

    To directly contradict Mr. Williams effort to appear flexible and reasonable, choice, in and of itself, will bring about the kind of systemic change that we need. At least parental choice will.

    After all, it’s not as if no one’s making choices.

    Someone’s in charge but it isn’t parents. Ergo, the state of the public education system is a result of the choices someone else is making and the only someone elses I know of are elected officials and their hired help. Even the excuses made by the likes of Mr. Noguera are contradicted by all the exceptions, not the least of which is the one described by Joanne’s book, to the fondly held belief that poor parents produce poor students. Same parents, same kids, different school, different results.

    I think the implication is pretty clear.

  6. I’m not sure I follow your point, Allen. High expectations are a good and necessary, but not sufficient. Students will not achieve at an acceptable level unless we attend to the content of their education, which neither Broader, Bolder nor EEP seems concerned about (or perhaps they take it as a given, which is even worse).

    High expectations in the absence of a curriculum is a mere homily. We expect you to do well at….what exactly?

  7. I would have to agree with Crimson Wife. Comparing schools that have the same student population would be beneficial to everyone involved. I would like to see our school compared to schools similar. We have 26 languages spoken out of our 300 students and 86% of our students are on free and reduced lunch. We make great growth but sometimes don’t meet the state testing goals in some areas. I would like to see how other schools with our same demographic do on tests. It would help us work together and improve our teaching. We could look at what they are doing in certain areas we may lack in and could improve our teaching.

  8. allen–I am surprised to find myself agreeing with you, at least in part. The minimalization of the role of parents in education is certainly not to be overlooked in our quest for the answer to why nothing seems to work. By this I do not mean that schools have taken on a role as parents (as many claim). I mean that for many parents, in fact in many poorly achieving urban schools MOST parents, there is simply little to no role for them within the school. Both Epstein and Comer elaborate on the possible types of parent involvement. Yet schools typically limit the consideration of parent involvement to commication, with a nod towards at home learning.

    NCLB focuses on two key roles of parents. One, which you mention, is the parent as consumer role–trusting to the schools “market” to respond if parents have more than a single choice regarding where to send their children to school. This has received the bulk of the attention. However, the other specified parent role in NCLB is that of decision-maker, of engaged stakeholder in the reform process. NCLB is very specific in requirements that parents be included in the school improvement planning process. Few in fact are. School responses to this requirement range from blatant disregard, to cursory public meetings to small committees of hand-selected parent participants.

    And yet–in the end–this is the only accountability system that is likely to have a long-term effect. It is relatively easy to snow accountability bureaucrats. If the school commits to solving the low math score problem by providing professional development, they can provide some receipts and certificates and be done with it. Parents are far more likely to be on top of asking critical questions about–how did that work out? Did the training change anything that is happening in the classroom? Why am I seeing the same old worksheets for my second child that weren’t working for my first?

    Parents, it has been shown, are concerned as well about elusive issues regarding school climate. Certainly it is important to know how many kids are suspended and why. But it is also important to know whether anyone says hello when a child or parent enters the building, how the phones are being answered, if a parent can get an answer to a question in a timely manner. Choice utiliizes market forces to get at some of these things–albeit in a fairly haphazard way. Involving parents directly in the improvement planning process is a far more efficient and effective mechanism for bringing about reform.

  9. I’m staunchly in favor off choice, but there is one glaring weakness in the idea that choice will lead to better outcomes axiomatically. The vast majority of low-SES parents do not have the educational background necessary to be critical consumers of schools. Thus, when the principal sings the song of (for example) 21st Century skills, and how it’s more important to learn to learn, than to master any particular body of knowledge, the parent will believe it. When the school says a child is just where she needs to be because she passed the state reading exam (translation: she where the school needs her to be), the parent will see no reason for concern. When the parent wonders why her son never gets science or history or art or music…well, she *won’t* wonder why. And that’s a problem.

  10. Well Margo/Mom I’m not sure whether to be flattered or insulted. Perhaps I’ll see if I can manage both simultaneously.

    Robert, you wrote “the mischief comes when we literally expect every single child to achieve at a high level…” which I think is a pretty odd idea in view of the generally rather dismal level of achievement that’s come to be seen as the norm.

    If too-high expectations are the problem why hasn’t it been generally noticed that they’re nowhere near being met?

    If you expect all the players on your baseball team to be .400 hitters I think it would be odd to continue to expect that level of performance with decade after decade of disappointment. A certain amount of wishful thinking is understandable if not evidence of a very realistic attitude but when wishful thinking goes on, seemingly without end, it’s time to entertain other possible motivations besides unrealistic hopefulness.

    But the assertion that expectations are too high overlooks those relatively uncommon situations in which the expectations are met. Like I wrote, Joanne’s book details one such, there are others and they spring into existence and are extinguished or spring into existence and continue for varying periods defying your explanation of the too-high expectations resulting in too-poor results.

    If you believe that too-high expectations results in poor kids performing poorly then it’s incumbent upon you to also find a means of explaining the exceptions. Otherwise you ought to revisit your hypothesis to see where it needs to be modified to deal with situations in which poor kids meet, even exceed, expectations which are very high and achieve at levels to satisfy the most demanding parents.

    Margo/Mom, I’ve come to be convinced that the marginalization of parents in the public education system is the source of all that ails public education. That marginalization is nowhere more effective then in big, municipal public school districts and on no one more effective then poor parents.

    That means that parental choice is a panacea because at a stroke that parental marginalization is reversed.

    Concerns about the competence of parents to make decisions about the education of their children have to be measured against the accountability and skills of the professionals. I would say that the state of public education in the U.S. strongly inclines towards the position that parental concern trumps professional skills.

  11. Margo/Mom says:

    allen–agreed, but we need to go one step further. If the marketplace only provides a choice between McDonalds and BurgerKing, and maybe Joe’s burger and fries, the value of consumer choice will be somewhat limited. Or perhaps we have one Mom’s Home Cooking with a widely varied menu that surpasses the offering of any of the above, but it is far across town. A few will make the drive to Mom’s. Some will be unaware that it even exists. Most will make a choice between three different packages containing nearly the same product. This doesn’t mean that the customers only want burgers–but that given the market choices, this is what they will most likely choose. Perhaps a wise entrepreneur will do some market research and discover that the market is ripe for a branch of Mom’s–but that is what begins to happen when we begin to consider the needs and wants of the primary customer–through research.

    As long as the providers are convinced that burgers are good enough for this crowd–except for the few that make the trek to Mom’s, nothing will change. And this is where schools–as public institutions–have an obligation to differ from the marketplace. I believe that parents, as a group, and including low-income parents, have far more to contribute to education than Robert is willing to give credit for. Sure, it’s easy to buy off the parent of a reasonably successful kid by showing how it is working for their child. But what about the kids (the majority in some schools) who are not making it? Sorry–but they are not buying into the limitations that schools have accepted–their kid will never amount to much because s/he is poor, minority and probably stupid to boot. That is why parents are marginalized–not because they don’t know what is going on, but because they do.

  12. I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at but *we* don’t have to worry about a thing. In a free market worrying is the province of the entrepreneur and those that worry about the right things survive, those that don’t, don’t. Problem solved.

    I don’t see why an education market wouldn’t exhibit, albeit in it’s own special way, the tumultuous characteristics of the food service industry.

    You’ll have the burger drive-thru schools that cater to the lower-end or convenience-driven market that just wants a square, educational meal and – since I’m from the Detroit area – the Rattlesnake Club schools that cater to the wealthy end of the spectrum in which the entertainment experience is practically secondary to the educational content. Educational lunch wagons and scholastic vegan family-styles. Schools will come and schools will go and it’ll be up to parents, in aggregate, to decide what’s important and how it ought to be packaged.

    To the folks dependent on the current system or incapable of contemplating anything else it’s a vision of hell but that’s how monopolists view the free market and they will do what they can to avoid that hell of demands that are ignored at peril and competitors who, relentlessly and unhelpfully, set the bar continuously higher.

    By the way, if you want a reality check on the ability of poor parents to determine what’s educationally best for their children I recommend you Google some articles by Dr. James Tooley. If parents for whom a tuition of $2 per month – yes, per month – is a serious sacrifice can make informed judgments about the quality of the education their child gets from a given school I think American parents, even impoverished American parents, can manage the same trick.


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