Paul Tough’s article on closing the racial/economic education gap in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine is must reading for education policy makers, and that includes not just those who run the schools but also those who fund them.
It’s also welcome news for educators who have been wondering whether Richard Rothstein is right, and there’s just no sense in continuing to work so hard and feel so bad about not being able to do more, because it will take the eradication of poverty to really close the learning gap.
Finally, it’s a relief for liberals who have found themselves in an uncomfortable position arguing with conservatives about the causes of the education gap, with the conservatives blaming the teachers and the liberals blaming, of all people, the very families they have always defended and tried to help.
That’s because what Tough does is reconcile right and left-wing views on whether the goals of No Child Left Behind are achievable, and if so, how.
The right is pointing to the success of some high-poverty schools and some charter schools as proof that the problem is in the public schools, specifically the teachers who don’t work hard enough, and the unions, whose rigid rules make good education impossible.
Rothstein effectively debunked the myth of highly successful poor schools by showing that the vast majority of the thousand-plus schools cited by the Education Trust were, on closer inspection, either not so successful after all, or not so poor, or not so representative of a low-performing student body.
Tough agrees. But there are still those few schools, mostly charters, that really do seem to have found the right formula: high standards, a structured instructional approach, character education, long hours, great teachers and development of a esprit d’corps.
And while Tough laments the fact that teacher unions have constrained the growth of charter schools, it is clear that there is little, if anything, these schools are doing that could not be done in a unionized school – unless of course we expect that schools that rely on teachers working twice the hours (15 or 16 a day, he says) can be replicated systemwide without increasing teacher salaries proportionally. (In fact, those strategies are precisely what the UFT and Chancellor Crew built into the Extended Time Schools back in the 90s, and many of them are working today in the UFT Charter Schools in East New York.)
So with what some charter schools, like KIPP, have shown us can be done, society has some choices to make. If we just want to pay lip service to the goals of NCLB without shelling out real money, we can allow charter schools to continue as exemplary but limited, non-unionized incubators of effective education strategies, and then continue to blame the teachers and their unions for preventing poor, black children from getting a good education. That’s the road many of those on the right have chosen because it kills several birds with one stone: it keeps taxes low and promotes their anti-union agenda.
On the other hand, if we are truly committed to giving all our kids a decent education, we can make the major investment necessary to take those strategies to scale so we might actually have a chance of closing the gap by 2014 (a la NCLB) or even 2020.
But in the real world, where teachers need to earn a living wage, that takes money. And not just for the longer school days and weeks and years. Also for the early childhood education, to help poor children start in first grade with the vocabulary and pre-reading skills that middle class six-year-olds have. And for the high-quality, ongoing professional development those successful schools provide their teachers. And probably for the smaller classes, too, though Tough doesn’t mention that.
Not coincidentally, those are all things the CFE money could have brought to New York’s poor children, had the Court of Appeals taken NCLB seriously.
So, as Tough says, if NCLB does not succeed in closing the education gap, as now seems likely, it will not be because we didn’t know what to do. It will be, he says, because that was the outcome we chose.