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Answer Sheet
Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 06/10/2011

A school reformer gets real

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There’s been a ruckus in the education policy world since The New York Times published a piece on May 31 by education historian Diane Ravitch questioning whether schools hailed as success stories by the Obama administration were, in fact, so successful. The reaction by some of Ravitch’s critics was histrionic, including a puzzling Jonathan Alter diatribe (on Bloomberg Review) in which Education Secretary Arne Duncan was quoted as taking an ill-advised shot at her too.

But there was one piece from a Ravitch critic that made sense and here it is. The following essay, by Thomas B. Fordham Institute Executive Vice President Michael J. Petrilli, was first posted (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s blog, Flypaper. Petrilli can be found on Twitter at @michaelpetrilli.

By Michael J. Petrilli

Diane Ravitch’s New York Times op-ed last week stuck in the craw of many a reformer, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan himself. What really got peoples’ goats were Ravitch’s “straw man” arguments: that reformers say poverty doesn’t matter, or that they only care about gains in student achievement. In a rebuttal last week, Jonathan Alter argued: “No education reformer has ever challenged the idea that conditions in the home and in the larger society are hugely important. They merely insist that such conditions not be used as an excuse for inaction.”

That would be swell. But it’s not exactly true. Remember the old adage, actions speak louder than words? The No Child Left Behind act is still the law of the land, and it most definitely rests on the principle that poverty is “no excuse” for low achievement. And it absolutely punishes schools for bad test scores alone. Diane is on firm ground when she writes:

“Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement. Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.”

Rather than get defensive at Diane’s defeatism, we reformers should clarify the ends that education reform can achieve. If not 100 percent proficiency, then what?

Try this exercise. This fall, about 1 million very poor children will enroll in kindergarten in the United States. The vast majority of them will live in single-parent families headed by women in their late teens or early twenties. Most of their mothers will have dropped out of high school; most of their fathers are nowhere to be seen. Most live in urban or rural communities hit hard by the recession, places where unemployment, addiction, and violence are all too commonplace.

Still, not everything is bleak. Almost all of these children participated in some form of pre-school program, though the quality and effectiveness varied dramatically. Many were in Head Start; others in church-based or community-based programs. They generally have access to basic health-care and, thanks to food stamps, basic nutrition.

Now, try to “see like a state” and play policymaker. When designing a school accountability system, what should its objectives be with respect to these 1 million tykes? On one extreme, you might expect them all to be catapulted into the middle class between the ages of five and twenty-two. First, the K-12 system should prepare them for the rigors of a four-year-college experience, and then higher education should get them across the finish line and into the Promised Land. No excuses!

On the other extreme, you might merely expect them to do no worse than their own mothers did. You don’t want to see the graduation rate go down, or test scores fall, or teen pregnancy rates climb. But you accept that, as long as poverty remains entrenched, a flat line on student outcomes is all we can expect.

I would bet that your own views fall somewhere in between. You acknowledge — privately at least — that it’s unrealistic to expect all kids growing up in poverty to be able to “beat the odds” and graduate from college. (That’s why they’re called “odds.”) You recognize that, for most middle-class families, the path from poverty to prosperity has been a multi-generational journey. (And don’t overlook how many middle-class kids don’t exactly graduate from college!)

But you also believe in the promise of social mobility, and can point to examples of schools—even mediocre ones—that have helped (at least) some kids escape the ghetto or the barrio or the reservation. To accept the status quo is to accept perpetual injustice and inequality.

So let’s get specific. Assuming that these 1 million kids remain poor over the next twelve years, what outcomes would indicate “success” for education reform? Right now the high school graduation rate in poor districts hovers around 50 percent. What if we moved it to 60 percent — without lowering graduation standards? Right now the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading proficiency rate for the most disadvantaged twelfth graders (those whose parents dropped out of high school) is 17 percent. What if we moved that to 25 percent? The same rate for math is 8 percent. What if we moved that to 15 percent?

To my eye, these are stretch goals — challenging but attainable. Yet to adopt them would mean to expect about 400,000 of this new crop of kindergarteners not to graduate from high school thirteen years on. And of the 600,000 that do graduate, we would expect only 150,000 to reach proficiency in reading (25 percent) and just 90,000 of them to be proficient in math (15 percent).

Ninety thousand out of 1 million doesn’t sound so good, but without improving our graduation or proficiency rates for these children, we’d only be talking about 40,000 kids. So these modest improvements would mean more than twice as many poor children making it — 9 percent instead of 4 percent.

And what about the other 91 percent of our bumptious new kindergarteners? We don’t want to write them off, so what goals would be appropriate for them? Getting more of them to the “basic” level on NAEP? Preparing them for decent jobs instead of the lowest-paid kinds? Driving down the teen pregnancy rate? Lowering the incarceration rate?

Is this making you uncomfortable? Good. If we are to get beyond the “100 percent proficiency” or “all students college and career ready” rhetoric, these are the conversations we need to have. And if we’re not willing to do so, don’t complain when Diane Ravitch and her armies of angry teachers say that we are asking them to perform miracles.

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By  |  05:00 AM ET, 06/10/2011

 
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