Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Oh Meyer Goodness! What was he Thinking?

Peter Meyer's baffling post last night continues to astound me.  The post begins by criticizing Pedro Noguera for arguing that there are two sides to the issue of addressing the achievement gap (at which point I was ready to agree with him), and finishes by arguing that Noguera's side is really wrong and Meyer's side is right (at which point I became baffled).

The post continues to re-hash the idea that we have only two options in combating the achievement gap: fix schools and ignore everything else, or fix everything else and ignore schools.  I've written in the past that this is a "false distinction" and agreed with Geoffrey Canada's assessment that this is "a terrible, phony debate".  We we need to choose option 'c' -- "all of the above".

I've already written a long description of this debate and what research actually says about the influence of non-school factors vs. in-school factors, in addition to a long explanation of how this played out on the ground at my school -- neither of which will be fully re-hashed here except to repeat this: If there's anything upon which education researchers agree it's that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming.

Meyer's piece goes downhill with the following paragraph when he asserts that the argument that "poverty causes low academic achievement" is "wrong."  Why is it wrong?  I'm not quite sure.  This is what he writes:

"What some of us have long known is that public schools were started mainly to educate the poor.  And the only reason poverty is a predictor of bad academic achievement results is that educators like Noguera have made it so.  Instead of schools as tools of liberation, we have made them into great houses of mirrors, reflecting back on students the environment they come from."

I'm genuinely unsure of exactly what this means or how, precisely, Pedro Noguera ensures that students from poor families perform worse in school.  But from what I can gather I assume he's arguing that high-poverty schools continue to perform poorly mostly because we expect them to . . . or something like that?

Where I sort of agree with Meyer is where he takes exception to Noguera's statement that "schools alone – not even the very best schools – cannot erase the effects of poverty".  Meyer is right to assert that there's growing evidence that a few select schools have achieved outstanding results virtually by themselves (which, let it be noted, is very different from arguing that we are able to replicate these isolated successes or that we should expect all schools (or at least all high-poverty schools) to work miracles).  But I only sort of agree with Meyer on this point because while I might have preferred that Noguera use slightly different wording, he's likely still technically correct -- and I say that because he specifically differentiates poverty from test scores in the next sentence.  The "effects of poverty" go far beyond just lower test scores, but we conclude that the KIPPs of the world have worked miracles almost solely because they have high test scores.  I, personally, haven't seen (not saying that none exists) research linking attendance at these miracle schools to broader outcomes (e.g. health, college graduation, occupational prestige, incarceration, etc.), and I'd have to guess that while one school can do a lot of good, it can't completely transform every single aspect of every single student's life.  Lastly, I find it odd that Meyer first argues that poverty doesn't cause low achievement and then that schools can, in fact, erase the effects of poverty.

But where Meyer completely loses me is with his assertion that "until we recognize that education is education and that poverty is poverty, we’re not going to fix our schools or enrich our population."  Here he couldn't be more wrong.  The truth is that poverty and education are deeply intertwined -- in both directions (i.e. living in poverty negatively affects students' educational outcomes, and students' educational outcomes affect their life outcomes and the odds they'll live in poverty).  And this is true regardless of whether or not Meyer's proposed reforms will work or not.  While we have plenty of evidence that social conditions and environmental factors experienced disproportionately by those living in poverty influence academic performance, we have precious little evidence that we can consistently change these conditions and factors in ways that will subsequently yield large gains in performance.

In other words, it might be the case that non-school factors are more powerful predictors of student performance but that in-school factors are much easier to change.  In which case, Meyer's call for school reform before community perform could, in the end, be the right way to go.  But even still, I find his utter disavowal of the relationship between poverty and academic performance to be more than a little disturbing (even despite his more conciliatory tone today).  And it leaves me with two sets questions for Mr. Meyer:

1.) What evidence, exactly, do we have that poverty does not influence students' academic performance?  If poverty doesn't cause worse performance, why do students from low-income families perform so much worse?  Is it solely because schools in low-income neighborhoods are worse?  If so, why do high-income students in low-performing schools outperform low-income students in high-performing schools?  And, even if it is only the school influencing achievement, is it not possible that neighborhood poverty is influencing school quality?

2.) Why must a disavowal of the relationship between poverty and academic performance be a prerequisite for the support of school reform?  Can it not be the case that poverty causes lower achievement but that schools can overcome some of these effects?  To argue that poverty is important and that schools are important are not mutually exclusive.

update: I originally misspelled Mr. Meyer's name as "Mayer" in this post.  My apologies; no matter how much I disagree with him on this issue he still deserves to have his name spelled correctly.

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