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Answer Sheet
Posted at 12:15 PM ET, 10/01/2012

What is Wendy Kopp talking about?

I found myself asking the question in this post’s headline as I read the review that Wendy Kopp, the celebrity founder of Teach for America, wrote for The Washington Post about Jonathan Kozol’s new book, “Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in
(Crown)
America.”

Kozol is an educator and author who, in his ground-breaking 1991 book “Savage Inequalities,”exposed the vast differences in education that children of different races and classes get in American public schools.

Kopp first notes in her review that Kozol “has done more than perhaps anyone else to raise Americans’ consciousness about the systemic injustices that keep families trapped in poverty and prevent millions of children from reaching their potential.”

Then she takes him to task for failing to use updated information in his book. It may be true that the stories he tells are from years past, but the problem is that the information she thinks he should have included doesn’t square with reality.

She wrote:

Yet we also have more reasons for optimism than ever before. Today there is a robust national debate about the best ways to help children growing up in poverty and a fully fledged movement dedicated to ensuring educational opportunity for all kids — thanks in part to Kozol’s writing, which I have seen inspire countless individuals to become teachers or advocates. Over the past 20 years, we’ve benefited from huge advances in understanding what is possible for low-income students and the most effective ways to intervene on their behalf. We know that demographics need not be destiny ...
Equally problematic is what Kozol chooses to exclude from his book — major developments that provide critical context for understanding the realities and prospects of children growing up in poverty today. Readers will finish the book none the wiser about the progress that’s been made and the mounting evidence that there are systematic ways to put disadvantaged kids on a different trajectory in life.
He neglects to mention the transformation of the education landscape in New York City over the past decade since Mayor Michael Bloo mberg took office and made improving schools his signature issue. Whether or not you agree with Bloomberg’s agenda, it’s a glaring omission to ignore what Harvard’s education school dean described as “the most dramatic and thoughtful set of large-scale reforms going on anywhere in the country.”
Kozol also fails to recognize the countless organizations and individuals who have been working for years to give low-income students an excellent education and alleviate the conditions they face. Groups such as KIPP, Citizens Schools, New Leaders, Harlem Children’s Zone, Jump Start and Stand for Children — not to mention committed social entrepreneurs, community leaders and educators — have generated huge momentum behind this cause. Many of them are working in Kozol’s old stomping grounds in the South Bronx.

If Kopp really thinks there is a “robust national debate about the best ways to help children growing up in poverty,” she should point it out, because I don’t hear the people who are in charge of education policy talking about it much. In fact, influential school reformers insist on saying that poverty can be overcome by great teachers, which may be true in some individual cases, but not systemically.

As for a “fully fledged movement dedicated to ensuring educational opportunity for all kids,” she is clearly referring to her own organization, Teach for America, and the public charter school movement as if both were the answer to the issues that ail public education.

Charter schools educate no more than 5 percent of America’s students. Teach for America trains new college graduates for five weeks to be teachers and then sends them into the toughest classrooms in the country, asking them to commit to staying only for two years.

A fully fledged movement?

A comment under Kopp’s review by kwheatley tells the real story. Here it is:

Kopp’s claims about systemic progress for poor children are simply not true.
Belying her claims, there have always been hundreds of exceptional schools for children in poverty, but they have always been scattered here and there — and they still are. They have always been the exceptions that prove the rule, and they still are.
No one anywhere — not KIPP nor Teach for America nor Joel Klein nor Arne Duncan — has proven that they have any scalable solution for providing a great education for all children while closing the learning gap between rich and poor.
What DO we have?
The high-profile educational success stories that are repeated ad nauseum in the media generally achieve those high test scores through processes that are impossible to replicate for educating the masses.
Most charters that achieve higher-than-average test scores with low-income students attract students through a process that skims off the most able and motivated from the sending population, and then they offer an accelerated curriculum that skims the weakest students off the bottom of their ability distribution. Next, such charters teach fewer children with disabilities and fewer children with serious disabilities and behavior problems (because you can kick them out). Guess which schools get those kids back?
Also, high-profile charters such as KIPP often spend much more per pupil than roughly comparable public schools — as much as 50-60% more.
Once the annual test scores come out, these schools declare victory, the media touts these surprising successes and asks what lessons they provide for public schools, and our collective education IQ drops a few points. Selecting more able students is not the same thing as providing better education, and for many of the best-known “success stories,” we have zero evidence that they provided a better education — only that they attracted and retained more able and motivated students and families.
These schools are playing an entirely different game than the one being played by public schools — and the game these charters and boutique programs are playing is simply not scalable to the task of educating the masses. Furthermore, many schools with higher test scores are providing effective test prep but not a real or complete education.
Yes, where we get intensive concentrations of talented teachers and administrators, we also get odds-beating results with children in poverty, but this isn’t Lake Wobegone, and all children can’t have above-average teachers all the time.
Finally, two things that are even worse for poor children today. First, we now have a lot of rich and powerful people desperately trying to prove that poverty doesn’t matter for children’s life chances. Second, an American child’s chance of rising out of poverty is worse than it has been in decades. If anything, Ms. Kopp seems to be the one who is neglecting the “critical context for understanding the realities and prospects of children growing up in poverty today.”

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By  |  12:15 PM ET, 10/01/2012

 
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