Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Just Because They're Poor Doesn't Make Them Saps

On Alexander Russo's This Week in Education blog, I read a really interesting e-mail written by Whitney Tilson who is a founder or president or something or other of DFER. You should read it and then read the comments.

The two main points he makes can be encapsulated in the following quotes:
But nor can we be oblivious to the negative impact on our kids when they lack the minimal resources needed to prepare them to come to school.
Yes! Glad to see this. And I agree with Tilson that no one should wait for poverty to be fixed before endeavoring to improve education.

You are exactly on target with the issue of poverty. We cannot have people vote against all of the things poor families need – jobs, housing for low and moderate income families, health care, food programs, etc. – but then say, "But I support vouchers or charter schools." To help the students who need the help the most we need both things: parent choice and programs aimed at getting people out of poverty.

I don't necessarily agree that choice and vouchers are the right reforms, but I think Tilson's analysis of ambivalence and distrust about certain political allegiances in light of rigth-wing platforms and politics beyond education is right on. I've thought the same thing myself.

There are, however, a few things that seem to be totally absent from Tilson's revelations:

1) What Robert Pondiscio said in the comments: education and education reform should be presented as a way to improve communities and not as a way to get away from them.*

2) The very real possibility that at least some of the reforms themselves are not palatable and not what at least some of the people in the communities Tilson talks about engaging want.

It's as if Tilson saying that poor people and people of color only reject the current reforms because they're top-down, brought by rich white people, and will cost them jobs. This reminds me some of what I took such issue with Richard Whitmire several months ago for saying about education reform in DC.

First of all, yes, people want change, but if people like Tilson come in and don't listen to what community leaders say is needed in particular to reform schools (and not just to help bring housing, jobs, and healthcare) and do something entirely different. This line of Tilson's is very telling:
Many in our movement have figured this out and are taking important steps to, for example, engage poor/minority parents, bypassing conflicted and sometimes corrupt community “leaders”, but much more needs to be done. 
There's an assumption that "conflicted" community leaders must automatically be by-passed, that conflictedness, in other words skepticism, is not to be heeded.

Furthermore, what about the substance of the reforms (or lack of substance)? Is Tilson assuming that poor people and people of color don't know what good education is? What if at least some of them do know or have opinions about what good education is and don't have confidence that the policies that DFER et al promote have brought or will bring it? Have Tilson et al ever considered that at least some of their ideas might be bad ones? Don't they think it's time they did? Perhaps the unpopularity of Tilson's product is not just due to how the product is being sold and to who's doing the selling. Perhaps people aren't buying what Tilson et al are selling because they're selling a junky product. Perhaps people know better.

*UPDATE: I want to push back a little against what Robert says here in his comment 
Toward that end, it might help if reformers positioned their work as a way to improve the intellectual capital and economic prospects of the neighborhoods they served.
If reformers' "work" includes promoting (or as is often the case, forcing) knowledge-free content such as the likes of Balanced Literacy, Everyday Math, and little to no teaching of any other subject, I'm not confident much "intellectual capital" will be brought back to any neighborhood.


  1. Thank you for writing this, Rachel. I read the whole thing too and had the same reaction. Tilson is getting some credit for reflection and airing some of edreform's "dirty laundry" (I think he used that phrase). But he didn't follow that line of thought far enough. There's an assumption that they're right on the substance of the issues and that any struggles are matters of strategy or messaging, when in fact, it's those, plus bad ideas.

  2. When people with zero experience in education come helicoptering in, dictating how education should be reformed for other people's kids, anyone with common sense SHOULD be skeptical of them -- should laugh them out of the place or ignore them. It's only because of their mighty financial clout that the political class and the press give these fraudsters credit.

  3. While every school and neighborhood has different problems, I think Robert's point about linking the success of the school to the success of the community and neighborhood is a great one. My daughters' elementary school suffers from being part of much reviled school system. Due partially to that, the demographics at the school are quite different from the surrounding neighborhoods as many of those who can afford to send their kids to a parochial or private school do. The current PTA has done a lot to market the school as an important part of the community; fundraisers have been promoted as community events and we've worked to have the city think of the schools (which are controlled by the county school board, not the city) as an important part of the fabric of the city. I think we've had some small successes and can see in the younger grades at least more parents who may have been considering private school to at least give the public school a try. This is obviously a different situation (a Title I school in a predominantly middle and working class neighborhood that was bypassed by many of those who could bypass it) than a school that's centered in a high poverty area, but a similar idea -- that the school is a benefit to the broader community and that the broader community has an interest in seeing the school and its pupils succeed -- is in play here. It works when both the school and the community are willing to trust each other and to work together and, of course, it requires engaged parents to help bridge the gap between the school system and the community.

  4. Thanks for the support, David & Caroline.

    @T.Carter I really enjoyed hearing from you & hearing about your daughter's school. My sons go to a SES-diverse school--it's about 50% FRL. People who want to avoid it don't generally go private; they go to other (frankly, whiter & more affluent) places in the same county. I talked with the principal a while back about her philosophy of education and how the school got to be in such a great place. She told me when the school was struggling a bit several years ago (wasn't making benchmarks, for example), what you describe was a big part of the effort she and teachers made to improve the school. They lowered class sizes, worked on instruction, and worked really hard on engaging parents and the community. I wish they had also taken more of a look at the curriculum but otherwise, they have been very successful.

    I think part of the problem with places such as KIPP is that they don't really become part of the fabric of the community, especially since there's so much turnover. As Robert put it, such schools market themselves as places to avoid the community rather than as places to improve the community.

    Thanks, again, for your comment. I hope you'll return.

  5. The school I attended as a child and is now my neighborhood school here in MA did something similar to what T. Carter mentioned. The school is now 60.9% Hispanic, almost 40% LEP, and 88% Low Income. About 20 years, it became a community school open to the public until 9pm; it offers GED, citizenship, and English language classes (with child care) in addition to hosting a local community group, the Highlands Coalition. The community group does a lot in the community like building gardens and planting trees but also hosts events like health/resource fairs and school committee debates at the school to bring people into the school. The results have been tremendous - attendence at parent-teacher conferences increased from 10-20% to 90-95% over the past 20 years; the attendance rate at the school is also much higher than the district average. Some may look at the 41% ELA, 41% math proficiency rates on the MCAS and say the school is "failing" but parents & students love the school because of the community it provides. Unfortunately despite all the good, the school administration does not support the school's model of education.

    There is a KIPP school that is building its expansion across the street from house which claims it will be a center for the community as well. We'll see...

  6. Your analysis is right on Rachel...thanx for writing and posting this...