Thursday, March 8, 2012
Hi PoliticAli, my response to your last comment was too long to fit in the comment box so I am putting it here in the post. Hope that works..
Hi PoliticAli, sorry for the delay.. you have brought up so many critical components in this post that I wanted to have time to respond properly. You have really touched on some of the fundamental issues in educational policy, imho. Great questions! Of course, I'll provide my opinions. :-)
Before I touch on your specific points, I would like to make a broader statement that I think pure logistics is a huge part of this difference. You touched on that indirectly in your parents-spending-time-with-kids question, but here is a telling anecdote: I was speaking with an ELAC (english learner advisory council) member the other day (ELAC is a school-level group consisting of the parents of foreign language students, and they advocate for the specific needs of their kids in the context of school policy). He mentioned to me that they have had trouble scheduling the meeting in which they invite some of their bilingual parents to assist in translating homework for the foreign language only parents. I kind of stood there for a moment with my mouth agape while I felt something like a hammer hit me over the head. I am quite aware that language is a barrier for non-english speakers, but it somehow never dawned on me that there might not be services that provide support in actually understanding your child's homework. I mean its great that they do this for each other, but think about the time and effort this involves, and based solely on parent effort, by a demographic that is much less likely to be mobile and flexible enough to attend such events. Imagine you went to your local community college to take a class and they handed out homework that was in Greek. Knowing you, you probably speak Greek too.. ;-) .. but if not, what would you do? And more importantly, what would the impact be on your performance? There are all sorts of barriers like this for many parents in our community that may not be obvious even for people who pay attention, let alone for those who dont. Even for those who may have finally learned English, kids start getting pretty nuanced word problems starting in 2nd or 3rd grade. I know English only parents who have problems with those at times, let alone someone who has been speaking English for only a year.
Genetics: I tend to agree with you that Genetics likely plays little to no role. I think its more likely that we have cultural norms (that are often different among groups who tend to self-segregate based on genetics (eg, race, ethnicity, etc)) and it would not be surprising to find out that what we see as obvious in one cultural context may clearly not be in another. This might tend to flush out in terms of genetics when measuring impact, but I dont think that means it has to be the cause. Regardless, when you get to a per-kid level, generalizations become meaningless, especially those based on genetics. So I think it is not relevant. I do admit there are many studies that are trying to push the idea that there is some genetic basis to learning, however, I remain a skeptic, and probably always will be.
Parents who are better educated do tend to have more money and live in better neighborhoods, but that may or may not correlate with better schools. In our community, those who live in the better neighborhoods attend private schools almost exclusively. However, there is maybe one important factor here in terms of 'better' schools. Generally speaking, there is some correlation between emotional disturbance and income level (or parent education to put it another way). There are some pretty straightforward reasons for this. Among them is the higher incidence of single-parent households. There is also the issue of the developmental stress that growing up in certain environments puts on kids. I read a study the other day that said synapses that were needed for literacy tended to develop more slowly for kids who are under undue stress, including abuse, hunger, or simply lack of stability. This is a CRITICAL point, imho. But getting back to good schools, it may not be uncommon to have higher incidences of kids with behavioral problems in lower-income schools and neighborhoods. This has a direct impact on teaching efficiency and many teachers, when they are able, will actively choose against such environments when the opportunity presents itself. Because many of our states have seniority-based movement rights, these teachers tend to be most experienced and most paid. This, in turn means that, generally speaking, those better neighborhoods will have better and more highly paid teachers. Even for states that have equality in funding between districts, this can result in higher income schools getting more money than lower income ones (in order to pay those teachers). Of course, lower income schools can get additional money that higher income ones cant (eg NCLB/ESEA), but when you look at it from a teacher resource perspective, this can be highly unequal.
As Im sure you're aware, many people use this kind of dynamic to argue agains the concept of seniority. However, in reality removing seniority alone cannot solve this while teachers find it too difficult to teach in such environments. Ironically, UTLA (LAUSD's teacher's union) suggested a few years ago a way to disproportionately reward teachers that choose to work in those more difficult schools. They even sued the district to force layoffs to skip over those schools so that they would not lose a disproportionately high rate of their teachers during layoffs (because there is so much turnover there, they tend to be more new teachers). [ed. correction here, it was not UTLA that sued the district, it was ACLU. UTLA was actually against the lawsuit because they felt it would not address the underlying issue of keeping teachers in those high turnover schools, which is what causes the layoffs by seniority to have disproportionate impact. So while ACLU attempted to address the symptom, UTLA wanted to address the cause. Addressing the symptom won. Admittedly, it may be the case that having layoff skip over those schools would tend to make those positions more appealing, however, that would only be the case for lower seniority teachers.]
But the important question is what kind of impact this has. There are many very good teachers who resolve to serve the most under-served environments. Whether this difference in teacher experience becomes the sole factor in lower results is far from clear. I do think when combined with higher behavior issue demographics, it can really be a detriment to have less experienced teachers, but again, it really depends on the situation.
There was a recent teacher survey put out by the Gates Foundation that I found interesting (even though I tend to view their output with skepticism). One of the important points from that survey was that teachers overwhelmingly felt they were not getting enough support to deal with the kids who had the most difficult problems (behavioral, ell, poverty, homelessness, hunger). So as far as Im concerned, instead of 'rewarding' teachers that work in those environments with pay, I think it would be much more appropriate to support them with what they need to do their jobs. Ironically, it is just those environments that society tends to dismiss as 'lost', along with an associated refusal to 'dump more money' into them. So that is how I would see the issue of 'better schools' in better neighborhoods.
It is absolutely true that better educated parents do and can spend more time with their kids than less educated ones. There are very clear exceptions to this I would point out, but it cant be underestimated, especially as the schools demand more from the parents. But there is another aspect of this and that is what kind of time is spent with the kids. There have been studies that talk about the difference in vocabulary of pre-k kids based solely on home environment. Some families sit at dinner and discuss politics or social issues or other things that involve complex vocabulary. Some families dont eat at a table. Some dont ever speak about these things. Some even dont use complex vocabulary. Kids learn language from their environment, so it seems clear that what they learn will be a reflection of what their parent(s) talk about and how. We sometimes forget a child's first teacher is their parent(s). And its probably the most important one of all. At a very broad level, there is probably some correlation with vocabulary and parent education, however, I think this correlation can minimize as you start talking about things at a family level. I even think for some sector of society there might even be a reverse correlation there. For example, I know highly motivated and/or very involved people who work at a lower income level than they might otherwise do because of their interest in social activism. These people tend to be extremely engaging and discuss issues in a complex manner fairly independent of their educational level. I dont know what kind of impact that has on the greater correlation, but I think it is worth mentioning.
I also agree with your lower stress and calmer atmosphere theory. This not only can impact learning directly during that time, but also can impact how focused a student can be as they get older.
I think the question of expectations is a difficult one. I do believe expectations leads to success, at least as we define it in our society. But expectations can also lead to stress, so there is a happy medium there somewhere. I also think passion plays a huge role in motivation in life in general. High expectations can divert passion (though they dont have to). But passion itself is learnable, imho. I do think kids need someone to believe in them (some need it more than others) and expectations play a role in that.
I have a theory that you dont need to 'impose' expectations though. I think they can be implicit in one's environment. Not to remove the discussion too much from education itself, but as an example, I think growing up in a certain type of geographic environment can lead to an implicit desire to sustain that environment (one reason I think aesthetics in low-income neighborhoods is key). This may seem like a trivial thing, but humans really have a fundamental relationship with their environments that is not always consciously recognized.
I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood for part of my young life, but it also had a type of charm that is unique for this area of the country and even state. I still notice the appeal of that charm when I go back to that environment. People who didnt grow up there dont see that charm, rather they see threat because its a rough area. So I think we have an interesting relationship with our environments in that way. I think that can translate to all aspects of our environment growing up (ie not just geographic, but social, economic, etc etc. Sorry for getting too abstract.. :-)
For me, maybe the most important aspect of all this is for our society to better understand and learn about what makes education work or not work. There are many factors, and many of them are clear and even addressable (in theory). I think we tend not to see that as a culture and its really sad. That has a direct impact on how much we're willing to invest in these kids, and that can end up being even tragic. Educating people about these things is something I think we could do a better job of. Our kids deserve more from us than anecdotal, sound-bite based policy.
Its funny, the other day I was talking to a person who works as a councilor at a private school (the horror! ;-) ), and he admitted that sometimes it was difficult to not have the preconception that some kids could not do some things. I was kind of shocked about it because he is a good guy who is also a strong advocate for public education, however, I know that humans tend to classify easily--we are kind of wired that way and he admitted this is something he actively tries to overcome; to his credit.
But when he said this, I realized something about myself. That is that when I look at kids, I see nothing but pure potential. It doesnt matter who they are, what color or income level or whether their family has a home. I had never consciously realized this until he put it in this context. This is how I would hope our society should treat its kids.
And finally, since I'm getting all sentimental, a short story. There is a special education student in a class near one of my child's who for some reason seems to have always had the same schedule as I. Every morning as I was leaving campus I would pass him in the hallway. For six months I said 'good morning' to him. For six months he never even looked at me (and obviously didnt respond). He walked by as if I wasn't there. Then one day I said 'good morning' and he looked right at me and said 'good morning' back. Obviously that is something quite trivial in the overall scheme of things. But I think it is actually quite important in a couple of ways. Of course, selfishly I was ecstatic (and I probably cried). But I also think this is the kind of persistence that we need to have as a society to make sure all our kids get what they need. Persistence pays off. And again, this is what our kids deserve. IMHO, anyway. :-)