Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Petrilli on Educating Poor Kids is Problematic

One of the few conservative edu-pundits I follow is Michael Petrilli. I disagree with him that high-stakes testing, rigid accountability schemes, disempowerment of teachers unions, and a focus on hiring and firing policies will lead us down the path towards better education. And he seems entirely too focused on specific outcomes, compared to improving the overall quality of teaching and learning. But he has some ideas worth considering and has great insights into the political process. Plus, he is reasonable, thoughtful, and open to respectful debate.

This recent post of his (and he wrote a similar one a while back) explored two questions:
"First, whether affluent parents should be satisfied with the public schools to which they send their own children. And second, whether those same parents can be energized to fight on behalf of school reform for the poor." 
Given the positive things I say above, I had to read the post several times before I figured out why it bothered me so much. 

"The No Child Left Behind backlash in the suburbs isn’t due to concerns that the law isn’t working to fix urban education. Plenty of evidence shows that it’s helped. The anger comes from a feeling that the federal law is starting to make middle-class public schools worse–or at least worse in the eyes of their customers."
I agree that NCLB is harming the quality of education in middle-class and more affluent schools alike--I've not heard or read otherwise from those parents. But I vehemently disagree that NCLB "is working to fix urban education." Where's this "plenty of evidence"? Juked testing stats? I would argue, in fact, that the poorer the population of any school (which often means the lower the test scores), the more draconian and harmful the interference of NCLB. I am NOT saying that it's worthless to invest in quality education of poor kids until we fix poverty--far from it. I am saying that NCLB is interfering with quality pedagogy and curriculum in ALL schools, especially in poorer ones. 

"The second question, it seems to me, will soon be answered by Michelle Rhee’s new endeavor, Students First. Rhee’s potential donors and supporters surely include many well-educated, well-to-do parents; she is encouraging them to contribute money and time in order to fix the schools of other people’s children, not their own. (Teach For America alumni–sensitized to the plight of inner-city education–will play a key role, I would bet.) The gambit is whether a “social justice” pitch to fix urban education can resonate–and be sustained–with people with the resources to engage politically, but without a personal stake in the fight. Time will tell whether Rhee can pull it off."
So affluent people's dedication to improving education for poor children is measured by the amount of money they fork over to people like Michelle Rhee and organizations like Students First? Really? First of all, where's the evidence that Michelle Rhee is "fixing the schools" of anybody's children? And wasn't it the affluent DC residents who overwhelmingly supported her while the ones who didn't were the poorer people whose schools she was supposedly fixing? I have no tolerance, either, for Richard Whitmire's cringe-worthy thesis that the poorer, black people in DC were too ignorant and full of race pride to realize that Rhee-form was good for them.

Lobbying groups like Stand For Children and Students First give money to politicians, many of whom these days advocate for policies that are harmful to the poorer people they profess to want to help, not to schools or to classrooms. Does Petrilli actually believe the only way to help poor children is via expanding our dysfunctional, lobbyist-run political system and buying politicians? How does that help improve the quality of education for poor kids? "Fixing the schools" is actually long-term and painstakingly difficult work that requires collaboration with educators and local communities. Rhee turned her back on many of the community-based groups working for school reform in DC and many lost funding as affluent and influential citizens decided, as Petrilli seems to, that all would be will since Michelle Rhee was there to "fix the schools." A more proper measure of their dedication would be the extent to which more affluent people a) support SES-integrated schools, b) support the poorer populations and schools in their own district, and c) support grassroots and community groups that work directly with poorer families. See here, for example.

"The best schools for children of poverty focus on all aspects of their students’ development. At the same time, they look a lot different than the schools affluent families send their kids to. They are more focused on making sure their charges have mastered the basics; they spend a lot of effort inculturating their kids in middle-class mores; they give regular assessments to diagnose progress." (Emphasis mine.)
Neo-liberals like Mike Petrilli, Matt Yglesias, and David Brooks can cite research showing that some schools (translation: KIPP) are very good at boosting some poor kids' performance. But these schools differ from traditional public schools on several dimensions: massive resources, often high attrition, longer school days, more books, longer school years, a richer and more varied curriculum, and sometimes yes, "a different school culture." I have no problem with more emphasis on basics for those who need more basics (as long as that doesn't mean reading strategies or test prep), but I have a huge problem with the idea that "inculturating their kids in middle-class mores" helps kids to succeed academically. The assumption there is that the reason these kids are poor students is due to their parents' values or morals rather than due to the lack of privilege they were born into. (And please don't tell me that when Petrilli, Yglesias, Brooks, and their conservative brethren say "mores," "moral culture," or "bourgeois norms" in this context that they mean good study habits. These men are educated and write for a living. If they meant "habits of a good student," then that's precisely what they would say.)

Petrilli's desire to help poor children and to improve the quality of our education system is genuine. Since I find it valuable to hear the ideas of those with different views, I will continue to listen to what he has to say. Unfortunately, this and other posts show that many of his solutions to the achievement gap are superficial and ideological, failing to address the roots of the opportunity gap: gross societal inequities. Furthermore, like Brooks and Yglesias, his assumptions about human behavior and the causes of poverty are based on assumptions and a philosophy which is, thus far, irreconcilable with my own.


  1. One might suspect that certain students do not need a "school" so much as substitute parents, and that to the degree a school is stepping in to be substitute parents, that school is helping those particular kids.

    But to the extent that students DON'T need substitute parents, the existing parents might get a little offended.

    One might suspect.

  2. A look at a KIPP school in New Orleans you might find interesting...


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