The REAL Fight about School Reform

It’s not about charters. It’s not about vouchers. It’s not about the power of unions or the role of standardized tests. The fundamental disagreement at the heart of our protracted inability to improve our public schools comes from something else entirely. As a recent commentary from the free-marketeers at Flypaper makes clear, this basic disagreement fuels big dilemmas about school funding and function.

Recently, Ian Rowe made some powerfully true points about this tricky truth at the core of school reform. But he also demonstrated how easy it is to draw some powerfully false conclusions. Rowe worked briefly at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and he is reacting to the Gates’s recent self-examination of their twenty-first century school reform efforts.

As Rowe correctly points out, spending money—even Microsoft-style bajillions—on silver-bullet school reforms will never be enough to correct the glaring and lamentable differences between public schools for children from affluent families and public schools for low-income families. That is, simply by paying for new school formulas such as smaller schools, more invasive standardized testing, or new subject standards, school reform will never achieve its real goals. Even with new computers or standardized tests, schools for low-income students will never offer the same opportunities and life chances that richer students get.

Rowe is 100% correct that such silver-bullet attempts will always fail because they get the school-reform equation backwards. We shouldn’t think about using schools to equalize a ruthlessly hierarchical society—we first need to pay attention to the reasons that society itself is divided between haves and have-nots.

After that, however, Rowe goes off the rails. His intellectual crash-and-burn illustrates the real dilemma at the heart of school reform.

For Rowe, the real problem with educational inequality has its roots with the culture of low-income Americans. If schools are to offer real opportunities for people to climb up the economic ladder, we need to focus first and foremost on changing that culture. Too many families, Rowe notes, have only one parent. And too many families suffer from immature and even immoral parenting.

To heal America’s divisions, Rowe argues, we need to encourage “parent accountability.” Too many adults in low-income families, Rowe insists, mar their children’s chances at a good education because the adults themselves dawdle in a “state of perpetual adolescence.”

Rowe’s prescription is simple. Schools must change the culture of young people. As he puts it,

Educators can teach students the sequence of life choices—education, work, marriage, then children—that is highly correlated with economic and life success, and that would empower students to overcome substantial race- and class-based institutional barriers.

Rowe is entirely correct that school reform will always fail when it tries to use flashy new methods to offer students from low-income families the same life choices enjoyed by students from more affluent homes. But he is woefully, dangerously incorrect when he suggests that the answer is to use schools to teach children not to be like their parents.

Our latest research, after all, shows that schools are not the biggest factor in economic mobility. That is, success in getting through high school and maybe college to get a better job than your parent had is mostly not do to the schools themselves, but other factors. And Rowe is right that a big part of those outside factors is family structure.Rothstein

The real disagreement at the heart of our school-reform dilemma is about what comes next. By and large, Americans don’t like to talk about the real problem. We don’t like to talk about the fact that some Americans don’t have an equal shot at the American dream. We don’t like to acknowledge the obvious truism that band-aid reforms to some schools here and there are laughably inadequate solutions.

We can’t even agree on what poverty means. For many Americans, especially conservatives and religious Americans, the main cause of poverty is “individual failings.” If only people worked harder and delayed gratification, the thinking goes, they would move up to better jobs and nicer neighborhoods. As recent surveys show, the rest of us tend to blame social structure and “difficult circumstances.” The most important factor in persistent poverty—in this way of thinking—is the way society itself discriminates against poor people, squeezing them into worse houses, with worse schools and worse jobs.

Unless and until we can figure out this persistent disagreement about what it means to be poor in America, our sporadic attempts at school reform will continue to disappoint. Like Bill Gates, well-meaning but poorly informed reformers will wonder where all their money went with so little to show for it.

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How Schools Can Save America

How can schools save America? The answer is clear, but nobody wants to hear it. New research piles on more evidence that our deeply cherished notions about schooling and social fairness just don’t match reality.

birch tree on a boulder REAL

If a tree grew in the forest and there was no one around to hear it, could it still serve as an awkward metaphor?

Try it yourself: Whatever your politics, don’t you think every kid deserves a good education? I do. And part of the reason is because a good education can help children secure better jobs. For children from low-income homes, those jobs can pull families out of poverty into the middle class.

It’s not just a myth. We all know people for whom this story has proven true. Like a lot of people in the aftermath of World War II, my father came to this country with nothing. Because he went to good, free public schools in New York City, including City College of New York, he was able to become an electrical engineer and send me to college, too.

As Rachel Cohen describes in the new Atlantic, however, research from Berkeley’s Jesse Rothstein suggests that these rags-to-richer-through-school stories are not the norm. As Rothstein describes,

There is thus little evidence that differences in the quality of K-12 schooling are a key mechanism driving variation in intergenerational mobility.

For people like me, this conclusion is hard to hear. We go into teaching and education, after all, because we hope to contribute our mite to making the world a better place. We work hard with kids from lower-income homes to help them succeed in school and get into and through college. And we do it all in the hopes that students might be able to get good jobs. Long term, we hope today’s striving students will build tomorrow’s stable, prosperous communities.

Is it all a myth?

According to Rothstein, factors besides formal education have more to do with economic mobility. As he concludes,

most of the variation in CZ [“commuting zones”] income mobility reflects (a) differences in marriage patterns, which affect income transmission when spousal earnings are counted in children’s income; (b) differences in labor market returns to education; and (c) differences in children’s earnings residuals, after controlling for observed skills and the CZ-level return to skill.

In other words, good schools can help people move up, but they’re not the main factor. More important factors include the number of single-parent families in a neighborhood, the availability of jobs, the presence of unions, and hiring discrimination.Rothstein

No doubt we’ll be able to have some unproductive culture-war shouting matches over these findings. Cultural conservatives will point to the importance of traditional marriage patterns. As Professor Amy Wax did recently, they might urge people to embrace “bourgeois culture” as a ticket out of poverty.

Progressive types like me will underline the primary importance of non-discriminatory hiring practices and strong unions.

All of us, though, will probably miss the central point. Focusing on school reform instead of social reform is backwards. We might think of this as the “birch-on-boulder” dilemma. Around these parts, a five-minute walk in the woods will show you plenty of examples of bold birch trees growing out of big boulders. The tree’s roots heroically scramble to reach scanty soil. Even though the baby trees started on top of rocks, they were able to somehow overcome those conditions and grow up tall and strong.

There is no doubt that some trees can thrive even in the most difficult conditions. If we want to grow trees, however, we wouldn’t plant all of them on top of boulders and offer some of them a little more soil or fertilizer. Instead, we would start by clearing out the boulders, preparing rich soil beds for all the trees.

Similarly, if we want to help young people rise above their difficult social conditions, we shouldn’t just put a few more computers in a couple of schools or tinker with a couple of difficult-to-find programs that might help a few students get an advantage in their educations. Instead, we need to make it so that all students have good conditions for growth. We need to clear away the “boulders” of hiring discrimination, job deserts, weak unions, and reduced family resources.

In the end, we face a sobering answer to the question. How can schools save America? They can’t. At least not by themselves.