In the News: Schooling, Poverty, and the Educational Culture Wars

In a recent piece in the New York Times, (Class Matters: Why Won’t We Admit It?)  policy professor Helen Ladd and journalist/college-guide writer Edward Fiske offered a strong argument for the close link between social class and school performance.

Poorer children tend to do worse in school.  As Ladd and Fiske point out, this is not news.  Nor is this only an American dilemma.  Other countries face similar situations.
The point of Ladd’s and Fiske’s piece is that federal policy has obstinately and deliberately ignored this important aspect of education policy.

For those interested in the continuing culture wars over education, the more interesting question is this: how have the progressives/liberals/Left come to embrace the position that fixing only schools can not fix education, while the traditionalists/conservatives/Right has taken to heart the idea that schools can be fixed by more rigorous testing and standards?

After all, the notion that schools are only one educational institution among many has long conservative roots.  For generations, educational conservatives have argued that the educational rights of family, church, and other non-school institutions must be respected.

Similarly, for a long time the notion that schools must find ways to test every student to determine individual capability and performance has a long and respectable progressive history.

Yet these days, the notion that schools alone can’t be held responsible for students’ total education has become a favorite on the educational left.

My hunch is that there are two main reasons for this development.

First of all, ten years of No Child Left Behind has shifted the ideological weight of “testing” squarely from left to right.  But this did not come out of Right field.  The progressive appeal of testing faded when the cultural biases of IQ tests were clearly established in the middle of the twentieth century.  When progressives called for more testing, they did so in the hope that such tests would allow schools to tailor education more closely to individual strengths and interests.  When traditionalists call for more testing, they do it as an appeal to the long American tradition of educational exhibitionism.  In the American tradition, schools, teachers, and students are all expected to make public displays of their learning. Today’s high-stakes tests are only an updated version of the old tradition of calling the schoolmaster out on the rug, forcing students to “toe the line,” to show off their learning in ways the community finds acceptable.

In addition, the argument that schools alone can’t fix education comes from a progressive notion that any social improvement must be more than just a policy band-aid.  That is, in order to fix schools, we must fix the more basic injustices of our society.  In order to improve students’ performance, we need to address the fundamental economic imbalance of society.  This would shift the discussion in markedly progressive directions.  Instead of labeling poor children and schools in less affluent areas as ‘failing,’ we would need to start talking about reducing the Gini coefficient, about reducing the growing chasm between the few rich and the many poor.  Instead of blaming schools and teachers for cheating on high-stakes tests, we would need to find ways to improve the economic well-being of huge numbers of poor people.

The ideological baggage that comes along with each of these educational positions points out the difficulty of speaking calmly and clearly about education reform.  Each side hopes to seize the moral high ground, even while claiming to argue in practical, non-ideological terms.  But the very terms we use frame the discussion in ways that are difficult to overcome.  Are we talking about a redistribution of income?  Or are we talking about improving individual performance in reading and math?

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