Monday, April 29, 2013

The New York Times Discovers Educational Public Health!

I'm racing to read my huge stack of student papers before Wednesday's grading deadline, but I have to note an excellent post that went up at the NYT this past weekend.  It's from a Stanford professor who's doing good work on income inequality and education--good work that would fit well into my fantasy graduate school of educational public health.  The post is called "No Rich Child Left Behind", and it makes the very important points that:

A) Educational outcomes are and have always been very, very dependent on class.

B) The disparity in achievement between rich and poor has increased over the past fifty years, with the big difference coming because the performance of rich kids has significantly increased since the 1980s, so that whereas in 1980 there wasn't much difference between the rich and the middle class, now there is a significant gap.

C) Test scores of poor kids are not dropping--on the contrary, they are increasing, and the widening gap between rich and poor is because the test scores of the poor and middle class are not improving as quickly as those of the rich.

D) School narrows the gap: over the nine-months of the school year, the gap narrows, but then it increases again (and a bit more) in the summer.

E) According to the author, some of the growing gap comes because of the significant increase in inequality over the last few decades, but some of it also comes because the rich have been devoting ever more resources to the support and have been engaging in, to borrow a phrase from other researchers, "concerted cultivation" of their children's cognitive resources.

In a wonderful section of the post, Reardon writes:

It’s not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that’s because much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich.
Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.
We need to start talking about this.

Yes, we do need to start talking about it, and Reardon starts talking about it in a very important way: rather than talking about how schools can narrow the gap, for instance by using schools to provide social services (something I've argued is silly), he talks about, not only  investing in quality early childhood care for  kids of working parents, but also on providing families with the time and resources to take better care of their own kids.  "Let’s invest in parents so they can better invest in their children," he writes, and goes on to suggest the eminently sensible idea of providing more support for parental leave from work. In this spirit, I have suggested that raising the minimum wage and having a better national health insurance system should also be seen as important educational initiatives.

Reardon also mentions that the American Educational Research Association has decided to make the theme of its annual conference this year be "Education and Poverty: Theory, Research, Policy and Praxis."  That is of course good news, and although the conference's theme is a bit mealy-mouthed, some of the responses to the theme are interesting--my favorite of the ones I've read so far is the obvious but necessary "The Poverty of Capitalism" by a UCLA prof named Peter McClaren, who says important things even as he conforms touchingly, as I think Noel Coward once wrote, to type (check out his picture in the appendix below), but I also like the idea that we have conversations with our poor students about how "poverty is a prejudiced construct sustained by those who are led to believe that “venerated” institutions are the preferred, superior and normative legislator for values and morals because of their power to grant and reproduce intellectual, academic, able-istic, gendered, classed, religious, environmental, ethnic, linguistic and heternormative capital within dominant culture."

Overall, however, what I'm seeing on the conference website looks a bit more like a backwater of clever theory than anything that will build the institutions we need to combat either capitalism or its constructs.  Again, what we need is a proper, scientific graduate school of educational public health. I think we need to speak the language of the society we live in, not plan for a revolution that may never come, and which, if it did come, would have nothing at all to do with our planning.  That's why I prefer Sean Reardon over Peter McClaren.  But I could be wrong!

In any case, I'm very glad to see the post at the Times, and I'm glad that some people are thinking and talking about the way poverty matters.  I look forward to reading some of McClaren's research.


For those who like visuals and want to be touched in that Noel Coward way, here's Peter McClaren, the revolutionary critic of Capitalism (or has Tom Petty found a second career?):
Peter McClaren
And, in a picture conforming a bit less touchingly to type, here's Sean Reardon, the Director of Stanford's Interdisicplinary doctoral Training Program in Quantitative Educational Policy Analysis and my hero for this week:

Sean F. Reardon
Sean Reardon

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