Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


We don’t know how to fix bad schools

posted by Rod Dreher

From Slate’s review of Dianne Ravitch’s new book, in which the former advocate of No Child Left Behind and charter schools admits they’ve failed. Excerpt:

The data, as Ravitch says, disappoints on other fronts, too–not least in failing to confirm high hopes for charter schools, whose freedom from union rules was supposed to make them success stories. To the shock of many (including Ravitch), they haven’t been. And this isn’t just according to researchers sympathetic to labor. A 2003 national study by the Department of Education (under George W. Bush) found that charter schools performed, on average, no better than traditional public schools. (The study was initially suppressed because it hadn’t reached the desired conclusions.) Another study by two Stanford economists, financed by the Walton Family and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations (staunch charter supporters), involved an enormous sample, 70 percent of all charter students. It found that an astonishing 83 percent of charter schools were either no better or actually worse than traditional public schools serving similar populations. Indeed, the authors concluded that bad charter schools outnumber good ones by a ratio of roughly 2 to 1.
Obviously, some high-visibility success stories exist, such as the chain run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which I’ve previously discussed here. But these are the decided exceptions, not the rule. And there’s no evidence that a majority of eligible families are taking advantage of charters, good or bad. “While advocates of choice”–again, Ravitch included–“were certain that most families wanted only the chance to escape their neighborhood school, the first five years of NCLB demonstrated the opposite,” she writes. In California, for example, less than 1 percent of students in failing schools actually sought a transfer. In Colorado, less than 2 percent did. If all this seems a little counterintuitive, Ravitch would be the first to agree. That’s why she supported charters in the first place. But the evidence in their favor, she insists, simply hasn’t materialized.
Ravitch isn’t arguing for pessimism. She’s arguing for humility–the kind she’s had to learn the hard way–and a healthy skepticism about silver-bullet notions of reform. The dirty dark secret of NCLB is that we may know how to identify the worst performing schools, but no one (yet) knows how to turn them around in any consistent and reliable way. And I mean no one. Not the Gates Foundation to date. Not most charter programs. No one.

You know this is a hobbyhorse of mine. I don’t want to defend lousy schools and bad teachers, and won’t do that. But the idea that even the best teachers and the most brilliantly run schools can educate kids who come from badly broken families and badly screwed up cultures is grossly unfair to teachers and educators. I have a teacher friend in California — an award-winning public school educator, in fact — whose school was on the verge of being declared “failed” under NCLB. In fact, she told me, many of the kids in the school were doing great — especially the Asian immigrant kids. The problem students in that particular urban school were Mexican immigrant kids, many of whom would disappear for weeks at a time when their parent, or parents, took them back to Mexico to visit family. There was simply no way for these kids to learn up to standards, said my teacher friend, if their parents wouldn’t cooperate with the school, and didn’t see themselves as full partners in their children’s education. But the entire school was at risk of being deemed a failure — a designation that would have severe consequences under NCLB — because of cultural factors completely beyond the school’s control.
Is that fair? Of course it’s not fair. Yes, there are plenty of bad teachers, and yes, teacher’s unions are often part of the problem, as well as corrupt and inefficient public school bureaucracies. But if these were the only problems with our failing public schools, then charter schools would have done better than they have. As another public school teacher friend of mine once put it (and I paraphrase), “So many of these kids come to us from such screwed-up backgrounds, if they make it to school with their shoes tied, it’s a triumph. You wonder how in the world we’re supposed to teach these kids when we have to spend most of our time doing social work with them. I’m their teacher, not their parent — but society expects me to be both things. I can’t do it. Nobody can.”
The problem with the public schools is they can only be as good as the public they serve. Good luck trying to fix that problem.



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Franklin Evans

posted March 15, 2010 at 12:36 pm


I’m so mad right now I could spit… um, actually, I used that cliche to cover how really angry I am. Ahem.
So, I’ll just get it out of the way. Emphasis added.
A 2003 national study by the Department of Education (under George W. Bush) found that charter schools performed, on average, no better than traditional public schools. (The study was initially suppressed because it hadn’t reached the desired conclusions.)
So, when Al Gore ends up basing alarming assertions on bad or corrupted data, we can jump on the ad hominem bandwagon and lay into him, but when another clear bit of testimony points to lying in the Bush administration, we get… crickets and a sighing wind.
[deep breath… another deep breath…]
The solution is so damn easy, no one seems to remember that it actually existed for quite some time: Train teachers to use economy of scale for that vast majority of students who will do well if they get the support and discipline only a family can give, and devote the rest of the time to the students who just need extra help.
Why is that so difficult to get? Homeschoolers, the good ones, can see this if they have more than two children at home.



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Jeff

posted March 15, 2010 at 12:39 pm


Hi Franklin,
Can you expand on that a bit?



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Richard

posted March 15, 2010 at 12:52 pm


Franklin, isn’t that a wee bit reckless on your part, considering NCLB was a hugely bipartisan effort championed by none other than Ted Kennedy? The Ted Kennedy with long-standing friends in GWB’s Dept of Ed? Must everything be reductionist ad nauseam to Bush lied and people died? You think GWB was the only person with something to hide?
On a more enlightening note, the homeschool model works really well – as Franklin rightly suggests – except when you get to kids with learning differences and disabilities. For many of these kids, there isn’t enough time if the teacher devoted the whole class to them. and yet the modern mainstream mentality all but ensures those kids will just get rammed through the system, learning little. My school is dedicated to those kids, and a lot of them fall through the cracks.
Finally, the number of kids who “get the support and discipline only a family can give” is dwindling. I think that’s Rod’s point: what do you do with kids and families who just can’t be bothered?



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Gerard Nadal

posted March 15, 2010 at 1:00 pm


Rod,
I agree with you. I’m willing to let both political parties off the hook on this one for one simple reason: the problems are familial and not political. All educational initiatives will fail.
A 50% divorce rate is the tip of the domestic turmoil iceberg. Children need 8-10 hours of sleep per night, but are routinely up until 1 AM texting, IMing, etc. Then it’s up at 6:30-7AM. That’s no more than 6 hours for most kids.
If the home is in turmoil, if parents are at each other’s throats, if single mothers are holding down 2 jobs, there is simply no time for homework help and a structured environment.
The list goes on and on.
Learning does not take place in the classroom. It takes place in the brain. A sleep-deprived, anxious, malnourished, ill-disciplined brain is simply unable to learn, whether in a classroom, a study hall, or the dining room table. Brains that are well-rested, well-nourished, well-affirmed and at peace are brains that are receptive to instructional input.
So it comes down to parenting and the domestic presets given to young brains. No politician is willing to throw themselves on that grenade by calling out parents who simply are not getting the job done.



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BrianF

posted March 15, 2010 at 1:03 pm


The solution is plain as day, but we lack the will to do what needs to be done. Devote the resources to the kids who are in a position to succeed. If Hispanic immigrants don’t give a rats behind about their kids education, why should the taxpayers? Warehouse these kids and devote the bulk of our resources to kids that are willing to learn and have active parental involvement.
If the parents don’t like it they can get involved and demand better. The onus should be on the parents and not on the schools to try and wring blood from stones.



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Your Name

posted March 15, 2010 at 1:05 pm


I think the only thing that will make much of a positive difference in urban schools is for middle class parents to send their children to them. One of the upsides of the recession is that middle class parents are being forced to move their children back to the public schools. Middle class parents (and I fall into this category) don’t have property to leave our children. All we can do is provide them with opportunities, e.g. a good education.
The urban schools failed because middle class parents didn’t want their children to be part of an experiment (who would take that chance on their children?). They told us that desegregation (and let’s be honest…this is all about race) was fair and right (and it was…no doubts here). Middle class parents agreed that it was fair and right but in classic NIMBY style said “not my kid.” So the middle class abandoned the cities and left urban schools to their fate.
The politicians know that forcing middle class parents to send their children to failing schools won’t work. Either the politicians will be voted out of office or parents will keep moving further and further out to avoid busing. So they institute things like NCLB to fix the urban schools but these schools can’t be “fixed” without middle class parents being involved.



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Gerard Nadal

posted March 15, 2010 at 1:07 pm


Final thought. I went to confession recently at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A very genial and wise old priest who heard my confession was discussing family and marriage as a vocation with me and left me with this sobering thought:
“You get one chance at life. You have a great wife and three young children. They’re yours. You can make ‘em or break ‘em. That’s the awesome power and influence of a husband and father.”
I wonder how many men have that understanding of their influence?



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Richard

posted March 15, 2010 at 1:12 pm


The one thing that has proven to be a boon to all schools is choice. Where vouchers ans tax credits and school choice have been used, schools have improved – for the most part. What happens is that students who don’t care (with their families) either shape up or get the boot; if you’re fighting for resources, there comes a point where you don’t waste them on people who don’t care.
Maybe not a panacea for all school ills, but it would cure many of them.



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Peter

posted March 15, 2010 at 1:21 pm


The one thing that has proven to be a boon to all schools is choice. Where vouchers ans tax credits and school choice have been used, schools have improved – for the most part.
Actually, Ravitz disputes this. Charter schools don’t perform any better than public schools and voucher students don’t perform any better than public school students. Creating competition has actually hurt public schools–but hasn’t improved outcomes–and only really served to add to the coffers and pocketbooks of religious schools and for-profit school creators.



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the stupid Chris

posted March 15, 2010 at 1:24 pm


Train teachers to use economy of scale for that vast majority of students who will do well if they get the support and discipline only a family can give, and devote the rest of the time to the students who just need extra help.
Agreed. Somehow the nuns at my elementary school did a great job despite facing many poor and single-parent households (this in the late 50′ and early 1960s) in part by spending more time and energy with the kids who needed more support, and in part because they were allowed to enforce discipline.
Especially in the public schools enforcing discipline is a hot-button topic. Most schools prefer the teachers do nothing but refer kids to the main office, which is time-consuming and removes the problem kid from the classroom for up to 1/2 hour at a crack. Even giving a “time out” has become controversial.
A comment I heard this morning was quite telling on this point: Teachers are being given responsibility without authority.
BrianF: The notion of punishing the child for the sins (real or perceived) of the parents is antithetical to both America and Christianity.



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celticdragonchick

posted March 15, 2010 at 1:33 pm


The problem with the public schools is they can only be as good as the public they serve. Good luck trying to fix that problem.
That. 10,000 times that!
There is no way any teacher has incentive to teach at anything but the best suburban high schools and teach directly from the mandated exams. That is what is rewarded.
It is a frakking farce.
Because it is sooooo easy to demagogue any attempt to fix it as “ZOMG! You are lowering standards for our children!!!”, I don’t expect any meaningful improvement.
Funny how Rod once talked about a definition of institutional corruption as being the ability of everyone to see a major problem, but an utter inability of the institution to overcome inertia and deal with it in any way before the institution is killed by the problem.



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Franklin Evans

posted March 15, 2010 at 1:38 pm


Richard, re “reckless”:
I have nothing but contempt for every legislator who voted for NCLB, but if you can name one or more Democrats in positions of authority in the Dept of Ed who collaborated in suppressing the 2003 report, I’ll gladly name them in addition to “Bush’s administration.” It’s the very partisan double standard I’m angry with, and should we encounter as egregious an example of that in the present administration, you may count on me to speak up about it in the very same terms.
Jeff, on what are you asking me to expand? I promise to keep my temper in check from here on in.



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M.Z.

posted March 15, 2010 at 1:53 pm


There are a few issues.
1) This is not the first generation that has faced parents outside the home. It just isn’t. What to do about latchkey children, remember that term?, has been a concern for a long time now. It can explain somethings, but people are asking it to explain too much.
2) A significant variable that has changed is that children are not failed. I think folks have underestimated the motivation of parents not to have their child fall into this group and act accordingly. I think this motivator is what is gone and the reason we are seeing these consequences.
3) Saying not all kids are above average is not the same as saying half of all kids shouldn’t finish high school. The curriculum is setup so that 97% of students have the ability to master the curriculum by age 19. The problem is that they do not have the opportunity. Whether that is because of a failed home life or failed schools is different question, but the argument from ability is simply false.



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Diamantina

posted March 15, 2010 at 2:06 pm


It seems that due to the drug wars in Mexico that are now killing innocent bystanders (e.g., Bobby Salcedo, a Mexican-American teacher and school board member from El Monte, CA), fewer Mexican immigrant families are visiting Mexico. Perhaps this will improve the education of the children of Mexican immigrants here in the United States.



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Turmarion

posted March 15, 2010 at 3:10 pm


Richard: [T]he modern mainstream mentality all but ensures those kids will just get rammed through the system, learning little.
Absolutely agreed. Court cases and various acts over the years force schools to do a kind of two-step, keeping special needs kids in regular classes while allowing them modifications and other services. The other kids resent this–why should Bobby get extra time on a test or a scribe to write his answers–and the special needs kids don’t get as much extra attention as they could in a full-day special ed context. Also, parents often jockey to get their kid diagnosed as ADHD or whatever, when there’s really nothing wrong with the kid, so they get extra services. I actually know a family that did got two of their daughters diagnosed as deficient in social interaction so that they could get into pre-school free, when there was nothing wrong with either of them (in anticipation of objections to this, they were friends of the family and the mother actually admitted this in private conversation).
On the other hand, re your suggesting choice as the solution–did you actually read the post or the linked article?!
BrianF, I think it’s broader than Hispanic kids. Why warehouse kids at all? In most districts suspensions are “in school” (they put them in a separate room and send them their work, which they don’t to, anyway) and expulsion is almost impossible, since they have to maintain attendance statistics. I agree with the stupid Chris that we shouldn’t punish kids for the sins of their parents–but to the extent that the kids are skipping school without being forced by parents, or acting up severely, etc. what’s the purpose of keeping them in school? I also agree with this from Chris: “Especially in the public schools enforcing discipline is a hot-button topic. Most schools prefer the teachers do nothing but refer kids to the main office, which is time-consuming and removes the problem kid from the classroom for up to 1/2 hour at a crack. Even giving a “time out” has become controversial.” Amen! You don’t have to be an abusive thug to regret the loss of corporal punishment in schools!
Franklin: I have nothing but contempt for every legislator who voted for NCLB
Contempt is too good for them!
M.Z.: A significant variable that has changed is that children are not failed. I think folks have underestimated the motivation of parents not to have their child fall into this group and act accordingly. I think this motivator is what is gone and the reason we are seeing these consequences.
Absolutely agreed. I could tell stories.
The problem is, most of these things are never going to be addressed because the left is trying to pretend we know how to fix public schools and the right is trying to destroy public schools altogether while both pretend that our kids, like those of Lake Wobegone, are all above average. No wonder so many are going to homeschooling–which, since it’s still an option for the few, is also not going to save education in this country.



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Christine Phillips

posted March 15, 2010 at 4:33 pm


I agree that a public school can only be as good as the public it serves, but that is only half the equation. I think one of the largest problems with NCLB and with any new education initiative remains that teachers are largely ignored and are not included in the decision making process. Who can better judge whether a program can work than the teachers who are “in the trenches” with students everyday. Not all of NCLB was bad…teachers want and need to prove effectiveness because it validates what we do everyday. I don’t understand the word “overhaul” nor do I think it is necessary. Keep what works and fix what doesn’t! The current administration and any subsequent ones need to recognize that non-educators cannot and should not make blanket decisions about education without the input of teachers and adminstrators who are with the children of our nation on a daily basis.



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Kevin F.

posted March 15, 2010 at 4:34 pm


I remember hearing somewhere that some early advocates of charter schools expected many of them to fail. The idea was that they would create a free market kind place where innovation could be tried and the successful models be imitated and the unsuccessful models show us what won’t work. I think this has not happened because educators tend to become wedded to their models whether they work or not…
One that caught some attention years ago–I don’t know if it still exists–was in Chicago. It took kids from the most troubled homes and gave them two teachers in their classrooms. One functioned as a parent, the other as a teacher. At the time I saw the story, it seemed to be reaching some students who would otherwise never be helped.



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Franklin Evans

posted March 15, 2010 at 4:36 pm


The key area of concern with students is the loss of respect for consequences. A child who sees no adverse consequences from certain behaviors at home will not respect the authority of educators no matter what they try to do about those behaviors.
It goes well beyond work habits and commitments.



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me

posted March 15, 2010 at 4:54 pm


While I totally support the idea of charter schools, I’m not surprised to see that many/most don’t do all that well. From what I have observed, a majority of charter schools are based around adult hobbyhorses rather than stringent academics. So you get schools built around the idea of environmentalism or social justice or ethnic heritage or basket weaving or whatever. And as nice as those things may well be, they are not remotely close to what kids need in order to succeed. I wonder if there is any way to parse out those schools which are built around issues rather than basic academics. I would suspect that we’d see a difference between intensively academic KIPP type schools and the “Community School For Social Justice Empowerment” type schools.



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the stupid Chris

posted March 15, 2010 at 5:26 pm


So you get schools built around the idea of environmentalism or social justice or ethnic heritage or basket weaving or whatever.
Most charter schools, including most failed charter schools, bear as much resemblance to this comment as a fish does to a rock.
I remember hearing somewhere that some early advocates of charter schools expected many of them to fail.
And the only cost is the education of other people’s kids, as most of the think-tankers and pols who strongly favor this send their own kids to private schools.



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Turmarion

posted March 15, 2010 at 5:27 pm


me: From what I have observed, a majority of charter schools are based around adult hobbyhorses rather than stringent academics.
A large part of what has passed for educational reform for the last fifty years, public or private, has been adult hobbyhorses.
I read the full linked article at Slate after I made my original post. It’s an excellent article, and I’m definitely going to have to get the book. I noticed, on reading the article, a passage that is my new favorite quote on education. I have for a long time thought that there was something wrong with the calles for merit pay and excellence in teaching. Not that there shouldn’t be accountability, or that we shouldn’t strive for excellence–it’s just that there was always something about such calls that I couldn’t quite put my finger on that bugged me. My new favorite quote nails it:
And as a practical matter, she asks, how are schools—especially in inner-city neighborhoods—supposed to attract these large stables of consistent superstars? As Ravitch writes, “This is akin to saying baseball teams should consist only of players who hit over .300 and pitchers who win at least 20 games every season; after all, such players exist, so why should not such teams exist.”
Major high five to Ravitch!



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Cecelia

posted March 15, 2010 at 6:16 pm


I think we are missing that while most of the charter schools are not doing a good job – some of them are. So clearly there are some approaches that do work. Why not shift the focus – what works instead of what failed?
I also think we need to consider the consequences for the larger society of this failure – can we really afford to have a largely uneducated underclass?
The notions of a Mexican immigrant about education might be different from middle class white America (for whom the standards are set). My sister taught for many years in an urban school serving Hispanic immigrants. She told me about a mother she was having a parent meeting with, making the point to the mother that the child was not working up to the expected standard. The mom however was thrilled that her child was going to school and learning to read since she had never had the chance for schooling and could not read. She was really proud of her child for accomplishing more than she had. I am not sure how we address this – but we do need to understand it.
Finally, I think we need to recognize what is going on nowadays. We have a situation where all over the country school budgets are getting cut. At the same time we have this spate of studies and articles being published all about how there is a population of kids who just don’t seem to be capable of learning. I am not debating the accuracy of the studies – but we should watch out that these studies aren’t used to create an environment favorable to making those budgets cuts for these kids who we claim can’t learn anyway so we can save the programs for those kids who do learn. Consider the motivations lurking about in this kind of budget cutting environment.



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Roger

posted March 15, 2010 at 9:16 pm


I’d like to see some more data about the parity of charter schools and public schools. Have any differences in poverty and education levels the charter/public pools of students been accounted for? I ask because in NYC a huge chunk of the charters are located in Harlem. It wouldn’t be fair to compare Harlem charters with public schools in the Upper East Side.



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stefanie

posted March 16, 2010 at 8:31 pm


NCLB is nuts. Our local school district is considered “failing” – as are the other 20-something districts in our metro area. It’s a great district; the teachers routinely win state and nat’l awards. But under NCLB, if even *one* segment of the student body fails, the whole district fails.



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meh

posted March 30, 2010 at 9:48 am


Must read Steve Sailer piece, Diane Ravitch, “No Child Left Behind”, And The Racial Achievement Gap’s Kryptonite Cause
http://vdare.com/sailer/100328_ravitch.htm



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