Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Educating Sebastian - Education and the Crab Pot

Up on the shore they work all day
Out in the sun they slave away

While we devotin'
Full time to floatin'
Under the sea

Just finished reading the excellent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System by acclaimed education researcher and writer Diane Ravitch.  On the whole, it's an excellent, fair treatment of the current infatuation with school testing, accountability, and choice in the zeal to reform our troubled system of public education.  I don't agree with much of what Ravitch writes, and she's a bit too unquestioning of the motives of the big teacher unions, but the book is a good read.

Her ultimate conclusion - that applying corporate models of statistical testing and reward or rebuke - is at the least, not a panacea for the problems of public education and perhaps actually is undermining the real purpose, which is to offer the best education to the most students possible.

One area I do find particularly problematic is her conclusion that the introduction of school choice, either through vouchers, charter schools, or some admixture of the two will lead to an even worse situation than the current status quo, in large part because the results show that the benefits of this sort of reform lead to the decidedly muddled result that some students do particularly well under such a scheme, and some students show little to no benefit or even do worse.

Her analysis asks "Who are the students who benefit?"

Well, the most important predictor of who will receive the most benefit from vouchers/charters are those students whose parents are heavily involved and invested in their childrens' educations, and those students who are most motivated to learn. Those whose parents do not bother to go to parent/teacher conferences, who spend hours in front of the tee vee and not books, and who are more interested in disrupting the class than learning do not show any significant benefit from being placed into a "better" learning environment.

The charters/private schools that do succeed succeed because they have the ability to impose discipline on their students, demand that they listen to their teachers, and can remove from the classroom or expel students who fail to do both.

In short, the "good" students.

Carrying her argument a bit further, if the "good" students are removed and sent to the charter/private school, what's left back in the "regular" public schools are the kids who need the most "help."

This of course is no revelation, at least not if one spends any time to think about the problem.

What I find troubling here is then the question that Ravitch asks implicitly: "What is the role of universal, public education, especially in poor urban areas?  She is troubled (rightly) that the current reform agenda will undermine the traditional, democratic role of the public schools, perhaps leading to ever more unequal outcomes for those at the bottom.

I suppose that Ms. Ravitch has the luxury of worrying about such a thing whilst all the time her children presumably attend "good" schools, and live in a home where books and learning are valued.

The issue with Ms. Ravitch's proposal is what is called the crab pot analogy.  Simply put, if crabs are captured and placed into temporary holding pots, some may struggle towards the top and escape, but will ultimately be pulled back into the pot by others at the bottom, and thus, none escapes.

Trapped in terrible schools are students who truly want to learn, who will do as they are instructed by their teachers, will put in the extra effort over their books, who will eschew television to complete their work, and whose only real means of escaping poverty is education. Students who, if not offered the scholarships/vouchers/charter schools will in all likelihood be condemned to remain in the crab pot.

Ultimately, our public schools should have a vision of providing the best education to as many students as they can.  But is there not room for some sort of help for the poor who value education and are willing to put the time and effort into obtaining it?  If I were the parent of a bright, motivated child whose only crime was being poor, I would be somewhat angry at the misplaced concern of the upper middle class about democracy in my neighbourhood.
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