Focus on the ‘norms’ not the educational outliers

Today’s blog comes to us thanks to an email blast from retired School Without Walls principal Dan Drmacich, who sent us a May 4 blogpost by New York City education reformer Diane Ravitch, who referenced a response from a South Carolina professor to an April 29  New York Times story.

Blogging on blogs.

But this is good stuff and well worth sharing with you.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

The Times story, “Money, Race and Success: How your school district compares,” lays out a variety of charts showing how clearly race and income are tied to educational outcomes:

“What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.

“Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.”

Well, yes, all that is well known. But the story also notes, “The data was not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.”

Hold on, says Professor Paul Thomas, of  Furman University in South Carolina (see his full post here): “Let’s stop trying to find the ‘miracle’ in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.

“Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.”

He goes on, and I like this analogy enough to steal it, “Education reform…is obsessed with playing the hero by seeing who can pull the most babies out of the river. And then examining the ones who survive the potential drowning in order to ‘make’ all babies survive the trauma of being cast down stream. But no one seems interested in walking upstream to stop babies being thrown in.”

I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating. We should celebrate these outliers, marvel at them, even look for  aspects we can replicate and learn from. But anecdotal success is not success when it comes to school districts.

When we discuss the idea of Great Schools for All—the principle that every child deserves equal access to a great school, that a socioeconomically diverse school environment makes all kids smarter and dramatically improves the odds of graduating high school for the poorest students—we often hear about how Charter School X helped some kids improve reading scores, or how Super Teacher Y changes her students’ lives and gives them hope where there was none before.

Yes, that does happen. We should never underestimate the power of very gifted and dedicated adults to change lives. It is truly inspiring. GS4A doesn’t deny that; we cheer it.

But the job of public education is to develop structures, policies and strategies that result in nearly every child—90 percent or better—graduating on time and ready for work, work training or higher education.

Thanks to Professor Thomas for making that point so well.