The buzz is building around a new radio documentary for our local NPR station in Chicago. The View from Room 205, produced by Linda Lutton for WBEZ, asks a big question, “What if we’re just plain wrong about schools being able to overcome poverty?”
Lutton didn’t have to spend an hour selling me on that idea, because I’m already convinced that K-12 schools mostly can’t beat the achievement gap all by themselves. That’s because what we have called an “achievement gap” is really an “opportunity gap.” Much of that gap is created before children even enter kindergarten, in the years between birth and age 5.
It’s no secret that focusing on the years before K-12 schooling is key. There’s already strong evidence that high-quality early education can do a lot to close the opportunity gaps. And there’s a growing body of evidence that increasing poor families’ incomes when their children are young can boost their later academic achievement, and even their adult earnings.
In Illinois, state policymakers are just now considering an idea that should have been a no-brainer years ago: making all the state’s lead-poisoned young children eligible for early intervention services. I hope Lutton’s piece will encourage more thinking along these lines, especially around two-generation strategies that help parents and children at the same time.
Accountability As Nightstick, When It Should Be a Dipstick
At the same time, education reformers should be paying at least as much attention to a different storyline in Lutton’s piece: how standardized tests and accountability—particularly, the threat of closure—affect what goes on in Room 205 and across Penn Elementary.
We’ve seen it before, all over the country: a narrow, test-driven curriculum, punishing anxiety among teachers and students, educators engaged in questionable practices, if not outright cheating, in hopes of keeping their school doors open.
Lutton chose to downplay this story purposely, preferring to put Penn in the broader context of North Lawndale, one of Chicago’s poorest, most historically neglected neighborhoods. It was a good choice to make a good point. As she puts it, “schools are not impervious” to the economic and social conditions that surround them.
She also chose to downplay the story because she didn’t want to point fingers at educators. Neither do I. But there are better ways to go at school improvement, and that’s an important story to tell, too.
In fact, a better game plan has already been laid out. In Learning to Improve, Anthony Bryk and his co-authors argue it is time to turn away from education reform’s penchant for “going fast and learning slow” toward a strategy of “learning fast and implementing well” by piloting new approaches through small, focused networks.
It’s also time to become much clearer about when we’re looking to see how schools rank and when we’re looking to help schools do better.
The history of the push for accountability shows a lot of muddy thinking in this arena. For example, while The George W. Bush Institute’s history of school accountability acknowledges mistakes and a need to offer schools rewards for improvements made as well as sanctions for poor performance, it says nothing about how to go about making real change in teaching and learning.
To Make Real Change in Schools, Fix the Lack of Know-How
As Bryk and company point out, poor school performance is usually much more a failure of know-how than a failure of effort. So the nightstick approach—one that assumes effort is the problem, when it usually isn’t—becomes very likely to produce efforts to game the system, like what Lutton saw happening at Penn.
Here, a dipstick approach is more effective—one that takes a measure of the depth and characteristics of teaching and learning in a particular school, and can be done at regular intervals. Just as important, teachers and school leaders need time, guidance and established protocols to act on the information they get from taking a dipstick measure of their practices.
Yes, poverty is a big problem that affects children’s learning deeply, and schools can’t solve it by themselves. At the same time, many schools—especially our most-challenged and least-resourced—don’t have what they need to get better at what they do.
When education reformers can look both those realities squarely in the eye and take steps to address them, I’m hopeful we will see broader and deeper changes in the quality of children’s learning, especially in the schools and neighborhoods where better schooling is most needed.