Short Course on Some Origins of Inequality
posted by Frank Pasquale
Recently my law school’s clinic “filed a class action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of all parents of children attending Newark Public Schools who are being denied their rights under the No Child Left Behind Act.” BlackProf regular Shavar Jeffries is lead counsel for the plaintiffs, who charge that the “Newark Public Schools district has systematically failed to meet even the Act’s minimum notification requirements.”
In honor of that effort, I’m highlighting a fascinating article from the NYT Magazine by Paul Tough on the challenges facing the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) effort. The article notes that NCLB aims to erase a persistent achievement gap between African American and white, and lower and middle/upper class, students (by 2014). It summarizes two bodies of literature on the subject:
The first is about causes; the second is about cures. The first has been taking place in academia, among economists and anthropologists and sociologists who are trying to figure out exactly where the gap comes from, why it exists and why it persists. The second is happening among and around a loose coalition of schools, all of them quite new, all established with the goal of wiping out the achievement gap altogether.
The “causes” literature is fascinating. I’ve heard about studies like Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods for some time, but the quantifications provided in the article are compelling:
By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another — all of which stimulated intellectual development.
I’ve heard similar explanations of a new gender gap in academics; social critics claim that boys too often succumb to a “dude culture that demeans academic achievement” and discourages expression of ideas.
So what are the solutions? They involve massive effort, and will test whether NCLB is mere opportunistic “symbolic politics” or a real effort to address inequality.
Tough (the NYT reporter) draws three lessons from successful charter schools:
The schools that are achieving the most impressive results with poor and minority students tend to follow three practices. First, they require many more hours of class time than a typical public school. . . . .Second, they treat classroom instruction and lesson planning as much as a science as an art. Explicit goals are set for each year, month and day of each class, and principals have considerable authority to redirect and even remove teachers who aren’t meeting those goals. . . . . Third, they make a conscious effort to guide the behavior, and even the values, of their students by teaching what they call character. Using slogans, motivational posters, incentives, encouragements and punishments, the schools direct students in everything from the principles of teamwork and the importance of an optimistic outlook to the nuts and bolts of how to sit in class, where to direct their eyes when a teacher is talking and even how to nod appropriately.
These all sound like reasonable steps to me, but very difficult to implement. A key question then arises: is the charter school form the only one that can implement them? Or can they be integrated into a public school framework? Jeffries raises doubts about the latter possibility. My own sense is that, whatever the institutional home of successful interventions, I hope that society more properly rewards and recognizes the committed teachers who are making a difference here. One of my cousins taught in a religiously-affiliated school in Watts, where part of her sacrifice entailed not having health insurance–and after a car accident she was stuck in an overcrowded ER in County Hospital for 14 hours before receiving care. Perhaps the Bush Administration should signal a commitment to charter schools by guaranteeing health care for all teachers in them.