School reformers often say that great teaching can overcome the effects of poverty. Here, Arthur H. Camins, director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., discusses problems with this reform narrative.
By Arthur H. Camins
President Obama and other supporters of current education reform policies often speak about high quality education as students’ only chance to escape from poverty. They also want to promote science and engineering literacy. However, their singular focus on schools as the cure for poverty violates a central crosscutting concept of science and engineering, understanding systems. The National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education makes the point clearly:
Consideration of flows into and out of the system is a crucial element of system design. In the laboratory or even in field research, the extent to which a system under study can be physically isolated or external conditions controlled is an important element of the design of an investigation and interpretation of results.
Not long ago, an otherwise healthy friend of mine almost died when a localized, microbial infection advanced into full-blown blood poisoning, or sepsis, which is characterized by multiple-organ dysfunction. Only a last-minute intervention saved his life.
Hospitals treat blood infections with powerful antibiotics, coupled with a multitude of strategies to maintain organ function. They recognize that supporting the essential organs is a critical care necessity, even as they work to resolve the underlying infection. Medical professionals understand that a successful treatment plan must address both proximal and distal issues, and that systemic illness must be treated systemically. Indeed, such an approach is now standard operating procedure.
In stark contrast, the current narrative of education reform says that by focusing on the apparent symptoms (e.g. low test scores and too few students prepared for college and career) and treating single organs, such as teacher evaluation and compensation systems, we can cure the causal infection (poverty). In the early 1990s, there was surge of interest in systemic change in education; however, those efforts were short lived in the face of complex problems and mounting impatience for a quick fix. Attempts at systemic change gave way to market-driven competitive solutions and a singular focus on measuring outcomes. We abandoned systemic change for symptomatic change.
To stretch the metaphor a bit, I would argue that the issues that often plague high-poverty schools — such as an overabundance of inexperienced teachers, low expectations among staff and even among families, insufficient challenge and rigor, inequitable distribution of facilities and resources, and inadequate evaluation processes — are akin to the organs. Their prolonged ill health may exacerbate the disease, but they do not cause it.
As with sepsis, we cannot ignore the organs and simply treat the symptoms of poverty’s infection. As with strengthening human organs damaged by microbial driven infection, we need to build up educational systems so that schools and their students are less vulnerable to the effects of poverty. We can give students a fighting chance.
We can do so most effectively in four ways.
First, we need to ensure that teachers have access to and develop expertise with a wide repertoire of the most effective cognitive, social and emotional learning strategies. They also need time for collaboration, support systems to help them develop professional judgment about when to apply which strategies and manageable class sizes so that the needs of individual children can be addressed.
Second, we need to transform the culture of schools and districts from bureaucracies to learning organizations, in which non-defensive self-examination is the norm. Systems with competition, punishment and reward at their core are the antithesis of this culture.
Third, for support systems to be most successful — and for instruction, professional development, and supervision to interact effectively — we need to implement non-threatening feedback systems so that assessment data can be used formatively for iterative improvement.
Fourth, we need to make a massive investment in improving pre-service teacher recruitment, preparation and induction.
Vigorous attention to all of these educational organ supports is a critical care emergency. Quick action on these supports can make schools and their students less susceptible to the infection of poverty, but alone they will not cure poverty… the real infection.
The more successful school systems to which the United States are most frequently compared have less skewed income distributions and greater supports for students and their families — a more systemic approach. Our most important investment would be in creating well-paying jobs so that families have stability. In addition, the security of universally available health care, pre-school, after-school and summer programs would bring to poor students, what is a natural part of the lives of their wealthier, and typically more successful, peers. The systemic success of these supports depends not just upon their individual quality, but rather upon their purposeful coherent implementation though community-wide collective action. Finally, we need to abandon the delusion of the last several decades that separate but equal schools are possible at scale. Instead we need to actively promote and incentivize schools that are racially and economically integrated.
Let’s not forget to use the strongest medicine to fight the real infection, poverty. Let’s not imagine that by getting more accurate measures of educational organ failure, or by propping up one or another organ that we can cure the disease. As a nation we need to do more than that. I think we know what to do, but so far, we never have. In place of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” we now seem to have a war on schools and teachers in the name of ending poverty. We can’t save the patient without attacking the infection. It’s time.
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