Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Should We Educate Poor Kids Differently?

Most people agree that the achievement gap is a major -- many would argue the largest -- problem in American education today.  And the question of how to educate disadvantaged students has hovered over American politics for decades.  Much of that time has been spent trying to equalize resources or integrate schools across the country.  But the latest trend seems to take different tack: educating poor kids differently than we do other kids.  While most middle- and upper-class students attend comprehensive neighborhood schools, increasing numbers of children from lower-class urban households are attending charter and specialized schools.  Many charter supporters laud the "no excuses" mentality at these schools (see, for example, David Whitman).  Meanwhile, charter leaders like Geoffrey Canada send their own children to suburban schools to avoid this type of management.

Which leads to an uncomfortable question: should we educate poor kids differently?  Few seem to acknowledge that we are essentially arguing that we should when we support different pedagogy or school structures or various ways of enhancing (e.g. lower class sizes or bonuses for teaching in high-needs schools) schools in low-income neighborhoods.  Most would say that we should treat all kids the same, but most would also acknowledge that kids have disparate experiences at home.  A compelling argument can be made that students who hail from different environments need to learn different things.  And a compelling argument can be made that segregation will never solve the problem.

Here's what a couple people in the field had to say:

by Stephen Lentz

Fundamentally, I do not believe that we should educate poor kids differently.  However, I do so with one giant stipulation: I believe that our entire national obsession with everyone 'going to college' is completely counterproductive to the current and future welfare of our country.

A generation ago, being poor and a minority largely meant that no matter how smart you were, college was supposed to be unattainable.  This was a mirror of the outrageous racism that hung over our country, and it needed to be changed.  However, today's policy makers have gone from one extreme to the other.  Today, poor students of color are expected to go to college regardless of their IQs.

While this is an improvement in one sense because it allows top performers to compete on more equal footing with their suburban peers, it sets others up for a lifetime of feeling stupid because they didn't make it to college in a "no excuses" environment.  Or worse yet, we end up moving towards a society where everyone goes to college, thereby negating the economic advantage of going in the first place.

This is an important failing of reform ideology, because it forgets that while the race-based bell curve was totally inaccurate and offensive, the normal distribution curve for academic achievement is very real within individual subgroups.  Indeed, there can only be so many academically "smart kids."

Traditionally, comprehensive suburban schools have not been as bad about this.  There, students go to schools that focus on both the advancement and well-being of individual students, rather than what's good for their communities as a whole, as students in poor neighborhoods are often expected to do.  Because of this lack of academic missionary zeal in the schools, students' individual talents are better tapped, thus making them happier students with more developed skills for a variety of post-graduation jobs.

Indeed, the adult pursuit of a chosen career or trade is the ultimate barometer of societal health and happiness, and schools that make this more likely to happen simple cannot be considered 'failing.'

I must add, however, that No Child Left Behind negatively changed this climate in suburban schools to focus on academic achievement above all things.  Thriving vocational programs were once at the heart of this focus on producing competent adults who were qualified to do a variety of jobs.  But because the law now mandates that all children succeed academically at high levels, we are forcing a lot of kids to do things they simply cannot master for careers that, for them, do not exist.

I think this is a shame, and rather than increasing student achievement, NCLB is plaguing all public schools nationwide with the same problems that haunt schools in impoverished communities.  That is, forcing kids into a model of "you will succeed academically and go to college, or else."

This is an extremely dangerous way to educate children.  It makes way too many of them feel like dumb and worthless children, which of course makes it exponentially more likely they'll grow up feeling like dumb and worthless adults in a society that purports to, but doesn't actually, recognize the value and dignity of all work.

So if this is the model that "reformers" are actively working to impose upon children merely because they hail from poor communities, then I'd just as soon stick with the pre-NCLB suburban standard and treat all children as unique and talented individuals.  Our country requires citizen workers with a broad array of skills that are not all, or even mostly, academically oriented.  It is simply foolish of us to force children into a false mold for a working world that simply doesn't exist.

by Bronx Teacherlady

When I go to the doctor, I want care tailored to my medical needs, not generic care for people my age.  Education should be every bit as tailored to individual needs as medicine.  Clearly, it’s not realistic to expect every public school student will have an IEP.  But in the absence of truly individualized educational tailoring, we can, and should, craft education to meet as many needs as we can reasonably anticipate.

If my doctor doesn’t have time to assess my personal needs, I’d rather he give me treatment that usually helps people my age who are at least medically somewhat like me, say, new mothers with digestive problems.  We know that poor kids have, in general, different challenges at school than wealthy kids, so we should educate them differently.  It is important to note, however, that much like medicine, the “different” education of poor kids needs to address fundamental differences that bring kids to the schoolhouse door with varied levels of preparation.

Continuing the medical analogy, imagine two 4-year-olds, Rita, a wealthy girl, and Paul, a poor boy, who go to the doctor for an iron check.  Rita’s iron level is fine, so the doctor congratulates her parents, telling them to keep doing whatever they’re doing – it’s working – and to add a multivitamin to make her even healthier.  This is what school does for wealthy kids.

Paul, on the other hand, turns out to be anemic.  The doctor frowns and prescribes an iron supplement.  Paul comes back for a re-check in a few months, but his iron is still low.  The doctor gives Paul’s parents a stern lecture and prescribes more of the same supplement.  Another few months pass, and Paul’s iron still does not go up.  The doctor throws up his hands and says, “it’s clearly in Paul’s genetics or his home environment, I can’t do anything.” Meanwhile, Paul gets weaker and weaker from iron deficiency.  This is the way schools treat poor kids.

Played out as a medical scenario, this seems an absurd, even immoral, way to treat children. It is just as absurd and wrong when our education is delivered this way.  “No-excuses” charter schools, lengthened school days, and high-stakes testing environments are the equivalent of raising the dose of a medication that never worked in the first place.

So when I say we should educate poor kids differently, I mean we should try compensatory education that actually compensates for what is missing.  Rather than giving Paul a pill that Rita’s never taken, in hopes it will make his iron level like hers, the doctor might be wise to find out more about Rita.  Maybe she eats a lot of spinach, and maybe that iron is more absorbable by the body than iron in pill form.  We would expect the doctor to explore why Rita is getting enough iron, and then try to give those things, not something Rita’s never had, to Paul.  Compensatory education should give poor kids the things we know they don’t get at home – one-on-one time with educated adults; enjoyable, no-pressure cognitive stimulation and linguistic practice; time and space to explore and develop interests and skills and become educated and educable people.  Wealthy kids don’t come to school more ready to absorb because they have “no excuses” homes where they study in silence all day and are told that their worth is measured by how well they fill in the bubbles on a piece of paper – how would we think giving this to poor kids could possibly be the answer?

Stephen Lentz graduated from Syracuse Law in 2002 but decided to pursue another calling, immediately joining the NYC Teaching Fellows.  He's since moved to Tennessee and is now in his eighth year in the classroom.  He occasionally posts on his own blog, Notes of a Former Teaching Fellow.

Bronx Teacherlady worked at a South Bronx elementary school and a charter school in another city before throwing her hands up and retreating to academia to try to fix the problem from another angle.

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