Thursday, August 5, 2021

Get Back, Jack

For years, Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post blog Answer Sheet has been an open platform for people opposed to education policies like school choice and accountability. Strauss frequently writes a quick set-up and then hands over the keys. A recent column from education “scholar” Jack Schneider is a perfect example. 

The headline says that COVID-19 has, “Laid bare the vast inequities in U.S. public education,” but the piece is really about the inequities in society and the unfairness of expecting the education system to address them. Like so many other anti-reform critiques, it’s a straw man argument. No one expects education to erase society’s inequities, but we do hope and expect that they can make a positive contribution to a more equal world.

Schneider begins by asserting that the achievement gap has been treated as a “problem” with the schools under the federal accountability framework passed by President Bush. He then suggests that Bush’s “Democratic successor, Barack Obama, went a step further,” when he said, “The single most important factor” in determining student achievement, is “who their teacher is.” 

He interprets this to mean he is, “pinning responsibility on educators,” but he links to a 2005 speech when Obama was a U.S. Senator, where he talks about increasing teacher pay and support. “Pinning responsibility” is entirely misleading and far removed from Obama’s message.

Schneider quotes, “Renowned teacher educator Gloria Ladson-Billings” arguing the “achievement gap” implies, “An expectation that all children would perform equally at school.” Huh? The gap simply acknowledges that performance for some kids is below standard.

Then we are introduced to a new term — the “education debt” — which is described as the damage done to particular communities by, “The historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral decisions and policies that characterize our society.” 

I am not really sure, but I think Schneider means society owes a debt to our education system for trying to overcome failed social policies. Either way, his larger point is that schools should not be accountable for society’s inequities, so I’m not sure why society owes them a debt. I’m all for more education funding but $12K per kid on average isn’t nothing. 

Schneider then suggests the achievement gap, “Is merely a symptom of broader inequality, past and present,” and “maybe schools are not to blame, after all.” As proof, he links to a study showing that Chicago public school students are outgaining most of the nation. It’s unclear to me how that study supports his statement. If anything, it makes the case for the aggressive reforms in Chicago since 1995.

Finally, we get to the meat of his argument. With 50 million kids doing school from home, inequities outside the classroom will amplify achievement gaps. Fair enough. Students with two highly-educated parents, arts and music training, books in the home, and access to technology, not to mention “well-stocked pantries,” will likely have more success with homeschooling than kids without all of those things. 

Which is precisely why we should have high expectations for what happens in school. Inequality is baked into our culture and our economy and that’s not going to change any time soon, but schools can help level the playing field.

Schneider then acknowledges that schools are also “not equal” in terms of resources, levels of teacher experience, and likelihood of devoting learning time to test preparation. That is certainly true, but it supports the case for countering inequities outside the classroom with greater investment inside the classroom.

Then he reverses himself and says, “Even if our schools were equal, they would not produce equal results” because of their external environments. We already agree on that point. Not sure why he needs to make it again, but it hardly disproves the need to strengthen schools or hold them accountable.

Then he equates efforts to improve teaching and learning as, “trashing schools and blaming teachers.”  How did he get there? Is naming academic under-performance as an issue to address the same as “trashing?” If NASA’s rocket ships can’t achieve liftoff and we push them to fix what is wrong, are we “trashing” NASA?

In closing, he says the achievement gap is, “Not something schools alone will fix.” Who said it was? Most reformers believe schools can help fix it and there is plenty of evidence they have, but few if any insist poverty and home life are irrelevant.

More important, we don’t control poverty and home life. In theory, however, we control our schools. We pick the curriculum. We hire, train and supervise teachers. We set standards. Is it really inappropriate to have expectations around achievement? If the answer is no, then what is the case for investing more?

Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham served as the assistant secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the first term of the Obama administration. He founded Education Post and is currently the board chair of brightbeam, the parent company of Project Forever Free.

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