Educating the Disadvantaged: Does Anything Work?

Dave Huber

The first thing I thought when delving into Sandra Stotsky’s The Roots of Low Achievement was “How come I didn’t read anything like this when I was teaching?” The answer quickly brought me back to reality: because public education today is much less about common sense than it is about progressive and racial politics. You might say the book’s theme is failure; over the last five decades, educrats have continually ignored things that actually show promise for low achieving students, and in their place have foisted upon teachers and students one dubious idea after another. Stotsky spends much of the book proving these ideas for the folly they are. Nevertheless, it comes down to a philosophical difference: should schools continue the trend of being (much) more than just a place to get an education, or revert back to that original mission? Stotsky clearly is in the minority, but this doesn’t make her wrong.

Sociologist James Coleman’s 1966 report Equality of Educational Opportunity, which Stotsky references throughout her book, concluded, “All factors considered, the most important variable—in or out of school—in a child's performance remains his family's education background," and it holds true today; a 2016 Johns Hopkins Magazine article states, “The conclusion that family background is far more important than people realized has remained a solid empirical finding for 50 years.” When my best friend (also a teacher, now retired) and I were working on our master’s degrees during the 1990s, he called me one night to say, “You’re going to love this one,” and proceeded to recount how that night his professor told him off the record that if you informed him all about a child’s home life, he’d be able to predict how the kid would do throughout school. Again, this was off the record. Why could he not mention this in class? Because pointing out the obvious is considered by many to be “blaming the victim.” As noted by Stotsky, Boston College psychology professor William Ryan titled his 1971 book just that in response to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action 1965. which came to many of the same conclusions as Coleman.

Unfortunately, this belief, as Stotsky’s introduction lays bare, has led policymakers, philanthropists, and interest groups to attribute low minority student achievement to “discrimination by teachers, school administrators, and local boards of education.” And don’t forget lack of money—educrats and teachers alike perpetually complain about needing more funding to address problems like the racial achievement gap. The results, however, never seem to bear out the complaints. Stotsky points to the experiment in Kansas City where, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the city spent “more money per pupil, on a cost of living adjusted basis, than any other of the 280 largest districts in the country.” Consider what these schools had:

The money bought higher teachers' salaries, 15 new schools, and such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. The student-teacher ratio was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.

Part of the money issue was addressed in the 1970s via forced busing. I’m like the protagonist in the 1970s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter; I spent over twenty-five years teaching in the same New Castle County, Delaware public schools that I attended as a student. My district was one of many consolidated into one by a 1978 federal desegregation order (the most “draconian” in the entire country, according to then-Associate Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist), a “9-3 plan” which bused inner-city students of Wilmington (the state’s largest city) to suburban schools for nine of their twelve years, and suburban students to city schools for three years. Along with many new teachers, county schools also now had “human relations” personnel to assist with relationships between the black city students and the white students from the suburbs.

As Stotsky notes, Coleman and others initially believed desegregation would increase black student academic performance. However, this view was predicated on white students remaining in the public schools. In New Castle County’s case, the first decade of forced busing witnessed white public school enrollment cut by one-half. Private and parochial school enrollment in Wilmington currently ranks sixth highest in the nation. Ironically, Coleman’s views didn’t provide the basis for the New Castle County plan; by that time the sociologist had “renounced his belief that blacks would gain academically if they attended integrated classrooms.”

After I had been teaching a few years, the desegregation order was lifted by a federal judge. The Delaware legislature had voted down a consent decree conceived by the city student interest group Coalition to Save Our Children (and supported by then-Governor Tom Carper) which would have, among other things, mandated many of the things Stotsky criticizes as essentially useless in improving minority student achievement: massive amounts of required paperwork before any student discipline could take place, “culturally sensitive” exams for minority students, and assessment systems which would allow students to demonstrate proficiency in different ways. Despite the defeat of the consent decree and subsequent passage of the Neighborhood Schools Act by the state legislature in 2000, the county feeder patterns did not change very much.

However, slowly but surely, many of the things the Coalition to Save Our Children wanted ended up being implemented in schools anyway. Today, if a teacher throws a student out of class, an online form needs to be filled out and parent/guardian contact must be made. So-called “restorative practices” are now used in place of “punitive” discipline measures like detention and suspension. Restorative practices (or “justice” as it’s sometimes called) involve holding conferences with misbehaving students to find out what ails them, and then chatting about “how to do better.” (Exactly when a teacher is supposed to do this is a good question; the way things are set up now it’s usually after school.) Restorative measures are codified in state law; Delaware Senate Bill 85 mandates the collection and public reporting of “disaggregated student discipline data.” If a school’s discipline figures “show significant disparities,” it must take “corrective action,” i.e. the implementation of restorative practices to improve the numbers. It’s not too difficult to guess how school-based administrators have reacted to this legislation. And it’s not just Delaware; Coalition-style demands are becoming policy across the country. In California for example, there is an outright ban on student suspensions through eighth grade, and an expulsion ban through all grades.

And don’t forget the “race educators”—the Coalition would scream in glee if it knew just whom districts in Delaware and across the country have invited in. In the mid- 2000s, my district invited a gentleman named Glenn Singleton to address every single teacher from every district school on the first teacher day of the new school year. Singleton’s schtick is designating white teacher racism as the main culprit behind slow minority academic progress. In his presentation, he stated right up front that family structure, economics, and peers would not be part of the conversation, which was a head-scratcher considering his program is titled “Courageous Conversations.” This program, and those like it, have spread across the country like a virulent plague. These, in conjunction with myriad staff workshops on everything from the latest class management fads to lesson structures to block scheduling, usually were led by district office personnel working towards graduate degrees. Singleton and district educationists are what Stotsky would call “nonexpert experts in education,” those who “multiplied like rabbits but rarely had any expertise in anything educational.” They “may have achieved recognition for an idea . . . but rarely had established records of increasing [student] academic achievement.”

So, what do we do to stem the tide of nonsense inhibiting the improvement of low achieving students? Stotsky’s solutions, while making perfect sense, unfortunately stand little chance of being implemented in today’s political environment. At the local level, she advocates development of high school subject standards which are taught by teachers who have passed research-based, state-developed exams. “Effective” teachers would be those with “verbal skills and mastery of the subject(s) taught.” At the federal level, Stotsky proposes ending Department of Education “four-year state education plans” (“declare them unconstitutional”), ceasing funding for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and “gap-closing research,” and forbidding data collection on American students’ race, ethnicity, and religion. George W. Bush certainly didn’t do the country (and conservatives) any favors by co-opting traditional Democratic positions on the federal role in education (like No Child Left Behind). It’s likely we’ll never again see innovative programs like that created by my high school social studies department; its curriculum included courses on economics, international relations, psychology, political science, and metropolitan studies (which dealt with local government and individual finance). Now, teacher creativity and inspiration are stunted as state and federal-mandated curricula require scripted lessons almost down to the exact word.

The “blaming the victim” philosophy promulgated by William Ryan and others will continue to thwart actual solutions like Stotsky’s, especially in districts with sizeable minority populations. In my view, this is based on a sort of “reparations” doctrine among progressive educators and activists in response to our country’s legacy of slavery and legal discrimination. Consider how my former district treated a speaker compared to the previously mentioned Glenn Singleton: William Jenkins, a black educator, had led a workshop at my school at around the time Singleton’s program had been adopted by the district. While Singleton blames (white) teacher racism for black students’ poor academics, Jenkins’s philosophy was yes, “teachers should always seek ways to better relate to their (black) students,” but he emphasized that black students should be made aware that their white teachers are there to help them. At the faculty meeting following Jenkins’s seminar, our principal felt it necessary to apologize for the seminar’s content. “Why?” I asked. Jenkins, our principal retorted, “did not offer any real solutions,” and “portions of what he said was insulting to black staff.” No apologies were ever made about Singleton’s commentary. I fear the same animus would await Stotsky if she ever gave a similar presentation. Still, as George Packer wrote recently in the Atlantic, "one day the fever will break," the "fever" being the failure of ill-conceived ideas in which those in power are "too absorbed." And when that happens, the appeal of Stotsky’s recommendations will become obvious.

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