Monday, February 09, 2009

"Fixing" Urban Education

Today I came upon two different articles which discussed "urban education"--put another way, "teaching poor kids".

Joanne has a post that compared two different attempts in North Carolina:

To improve the performance of low-income students, Wake County, North Carolina’s largest district, uses busing to integrate its schools by socioeconomic status. One in six students is bused at a cost of $541.56 per student.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the second largest district, runs neighborhood schools that serve affluent kids in the suburbs, poor kids in the downtown. Millions of extra dollars go to improve high-poverty schools.

Which system works better? According to the Raleigh News & Observer, both systems are equally unsuccessful.

Coincidentally, RotLC reader Mazenko forwarded to me this column by DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, in which she says, "[T]eachers are the solution to the vexing problems facing urban education. "

I don't often say this, but I disagree with Michelle Rhee here. Looking at the failed solutions in Joanne's post, we can either assume that both the districts in North Carolina completely screwed up (not out of the realm of possibility, especially in public education), or something else is at work. I vote for Option B, and I'll even tell you what the answer is: The problem isn't the school, it's the culture.

And that explains why Rhee is mistaken. Her statement could be corrected thusly: Teachers are a necessary, but not sufficient, part of the solution to the vexing problems facing urban education.

And therein lies the answer to why so many students, especially lower income students, do so poorly--as a society we only address the school component.

Update, 2/10/09: And look what the major Sacramento paper reported Sunday.


teachergirl said...

"The problem isn't the school, it's the culture."

Could you elaborate on that a bit?

Darren said...

The link between low SES and low performance is too overwhelming to ignore. There exists a "culture of poverty" which is just as real and just as powerful as "middle class culture" or "upper class culture". To say that it doesn't value education is probably accurate.

Yes, it can be overcome. But it takes work outside of the school to make it happen. Parents have to be educated, they have to be taught *how* to help their kids succeed.

Anonymous said...

The evidence in support of a link between low SES and low performance may be too overwhelming to ignore but phenomena like Downtown College Prep, and many other, similar schools, makes it clear that the situation is more complex then poor parents = poor performance.

Darren said...

There are many successful, though isolated, cases, and in every one of them there's a wider focus than just the teacher in the classroom.

teachergirl said...

Thanks Darren, that's what I thought you meant.
"Parents have to be educated, they have to be taught *how* to help their kids succeed."
I agree. I work in an urban kindergarten class, with a low SES, and it's obvious the kids who get read to and talked to, and the kids who spend all their time in front of a tv. The former are reading, or ready to read, and most of the latter still can't identify all the letters. Of course, many of our families are immigrants, so English is not spoken at home. Even then, you can tell which kids are being read to in their native languages.

If parents don't think education/learning etc is important, kids pick up on that pretty quick and form similar attitudes.

Anonymous said...

...or a focus that's purposely kept narrow to exclude, or minimize the importance of anything other then education, anything other then the teacher in the classroom.

One of my vast insights into the public education system is that the political nature of public education means education becomes just another among competing considerations.

Ironically, one of the most powerful and effective players is, of course, the teacher's unions.

While they necessarily pay lip service to the importance of education they're also one of the players that ensures that education is subordinated to other considerations, in this case the job security and benefits packages of teachers. The reason it's ironic that the teacher's unions are so effective is that by reducing the importance of education, of learning, the unions also reduce the importance of teaching.

Where this observation bears on the relationship between socio-economic status and educational quality is that poor people aren't as likely to be politically active or politically influential.

Since parents are the only group that has any legitimate claim to be concerned primarily with the education kids get the connection between low socio-economic status and lousy education ceases to be a mystery and becomes a mundane political equation. The people who, by the amount of money they've got, by the education they've got, by their location on the socio-political pecking order are least like to directly effect political discussions are the people who are most likely to want poor kids to get a good education.

None of that means that a poor kid can't get a good education but like the proverbial Kentucky Derby winner who's "out of Texas by truck", it's not the way the smart money bets.