I really enjoyed Sunday’s magazine article on the education gap. It brought together a number of interests of mine – education politics, parenting, class. The article begins with NCLB’s goal of improving education in lower income areas, of ending the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” No matter what you think about the implementation of NCLB, you must admit that is a worthy goal.
The article points to research by Annette Lareau and other sociologists who find that parenting styles of working class families has an impact on their later success in schools. Poor and working class kids enter Kindergarten at a huge disadvantage from middle class kids and they never catch up.
Aware of these deficits, a number of charter school leaders are working to give those poor kids the tools to succeed that they weren’t receiving at home. They increased time in school and are teaching them how to behave in a classroom. The KIPP schools have been particularly successful and that model is being replicated across the country. Scaling up these small schools led by charismatic leaders is always tricky, but the new KIPP schools are also managing to bring up the test scores of new groups of poor students. These KIPP programs are significant, because they show that schools can make a difference.
Why aren’t the KIPP schools being replicated in public schools? Why was NCLB so ineffective in bringing up test scores? Politics.
NCLB has relied on sticks and tests to bring up poor schools. The philosophy was that poor kids aren’t doing well, because their teachers are lazy and stupid. Force the teachers to get advanced degrees and not waste time doing fluffy stuff in the classrooms. Without funding and other support for these schools, kids are still doing poorly on the national tests. To save face, the education department allowed the states to define their own weak standards to match the poor test results.
NCLB also didn’t bring about the fundamental restructuring of public schools that is needed to really bring about change. KIPP schools succeed, because that they bring in the best teachers from Teach For America and lengthen the school year. These measures would also have to be applied to public schools to bring about major change. NCLB didn’t do that, but any federal program that tried to do such things would face strong resistance. The teachers’ unions would fight lengthening the school year and changing hiring practices. Middle class parents would bristle at the tough measures that are so effective in the KIPP schools. There aren’t enough good teachers to go around. Tax payers resist sending more money going to schools, particularly to ones not in their backyard.
Education is the great promise for creating a society where people are able to succeed not based on their on their background or privilege, but one where people succeed based on their ability and hard work. The education gap is a major roadblock in creating a just society. The failure of NCLB shouldn’t deter us from working harder to change things.
UPDATE: For a nice summary of the article, check out a new blog, The Psychology of Education.