Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Community Agenda for Schools

In fairness, apparently The Community Agenda for America's Public Schools is the other major reform agenda that has recently emerged (along with the Broader, Bolder group discussed in the last post).

At the core of the Community Agenda are a set of recommendations for collaborations between schools and "the community":
This idea—fully embraced—would make all Americans responsible and accountable for excellent schools and the positive development of all our young people. Every institution that influences positive outcomes for children and youth must be part of the agenda—schools, families, government, youth development organizations, health, mental health and family support agencies, higher education and faith-based institutions, community organizing and community development groups, unions, and business. Each brings assets and expertise; each must change how it does its work; and all must work together to close the opportunity gap
The recommendations (listed below in edited form) mostly, but not entirely, seem to define "community" as "institutions that serve the community."  One problem with this definition is that these institutions are generally led by people who don't come from or live in impoverished communities.  Nonetheless, it would be nice if local institutions worked better together.  The idea of "one stop shops" for services, and school based services--especially health services--seems important.

But this seems to assume that these institutions haven't already been trying to work together to one extent or another.  Whether we like it or not, the fact is that in impoverished urban areas, at least, schools, as institutions, tend not to work and play well with others for a whole range of reasons.  It is difficult to mandate "community participation" for schools just as it is difficult to mandate "better pedagogy."  These relationships are complex, context-bound, and often personality driven.  Many if not most "collaborations" between schools and communities actually involve local agencies using school space for after school programs, for example, but not really having that much substantively to do with the actual institution of the school.  It's not clear to me that urging schools to engage more with the community will end up having much more overall effect than efforts to urge teachers to teach better.  

There are examples of effective inter-agency collaboration, as the group's call to action notes.  But can these be broadly and widely replicated with any speed in any effective way?  I'm not sure, and it's certainly not where I'd put my marbles if I had any.  (But see Schorr's book for the best discussion of the challenges of replication that I now of.  It actually discusses one of the community collaborations noted in the Community Agenda statement.  Anyone out there know of more recent work?)

Furthermore, the recommendation for more effective "involvement" between schools and communities more broadly seems pretty "pie in the sky."  In a review of the literature around community-school relationships, I could find NO example of a broad based, replicable model for fostering this kind of involvement.  Schools as institutions are almost completely uninterested in opening themselves up to real engagement by people and groups who are actually located IN impoverished communities (at least in the urban literature I looked at).  I have talked to some people who were grumpy about this finding--but aside from anecdotal stories, no one has actually presented a coherent argument to me about why I am wrong.  (I'd love to be wrong--but I doubt I am).  The point isn't that schools can't do better--see Joyce L. Epstein's work, for example.  The point is that what they do seem to be able to do doesn't seem likely to produce robust shifts in community participation understood in the broadest sense.  Without "authentic" participation by any definition, this could easily become a project designed to teach those poor parents how to raise their kids.  

I did find that engagements between schools and independent groups designed to enhance community empowerment (among others) did sometimes seem to be effective.  And the plan does mention community organizing groups among others.  But except in rare cases, community organizing groups simply do not have the current capacity to engage with a broad range of school in our cities.  Many can barely stay alive in the first place.  One would have to imagine how significant resources could be put into these organizing groups--$ that does not flow through the schools who have little pragmatic interest in reducing their own control.  It's hard to imagine how this would happen.  And there is little in the recommendations that gives me hope that the groups 

Given this, the differences between this model and the Broader, Bolder model seem limited to the Community Agenda's focus on community relationships as the central tool, and on a more limited focus on the importance of non-school issues on student achievement in the Community Agenda model.  The problem with this focus on community is that it could easily draw emphasis away from the need for services and resources, which is vastly more needed than the coordination of these services (which mostly don't exist), although coordination would be wonderful.  In fact, there seems to me to be something of a disconnect between their Strategies That Work list, and the Policy Recommendations that follow these (listed below).

Further, there is less acknowledgement here, than in the Broader, Bolder plan that non-school resources are clearly the most important and effective place to intervene if we really want to make an impact on achievement and on the flourishing of children more broadly.  Talk about community collaboration is cheaper than actually finding the kinds of resources discussed by the Broader, Bolder folks.  Ironically, this is why people talk so much about schools as a solution to poverty--because education is cheaper than efforts to actually solve poverty, because talk about education is pretty non-political, and because talk, by itself, without actually doing much for schools is even cheaper.  

So I'm much more drawn to the Broader, Bolder vision than the Community Agenda vision.  The Broader, Bolder folks seem to be addressing the core challenges of education, the challenges that we most need to address, even though it will inevitably be more difficult to actually make change in these areas.

That's my initial response.  What do others think?

The Community Agenda's "Policy Recommendations":
  • Results-focused Partnerships
Through results-focused partnerships, the resources of all government and community institutions can be aligned and applied in a more coordinated and effective fashion.
  • Youth, Parent, School, and Community Involvement
The people and places affected by public policy must have a voice in its implementation.  We propose that policy be developed to enable youth, parents, and community leaders as well as school leaders, including principals and teachers, to be partners in the planning and oversight of school reform and community initiatives.
  • Community-School Coordination
Effective coordination is essential at the school site.  Research shows that students can and will achieve when resources to address their academic and other needs are tailored, coordinated, and accessible.  We recommend policies that provide staff in every school who will coordinate results-focused partnerships, integrate school and community resources based on individual student needs, and engage parents as well as other community members.
  • A Broad-Based Accountability Framework
A single standardized test should not be the only basis for judging schools or students.
  • Public Access to Data
  • Professional Development and Capacity-Building
  • Increased Investments

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Broader, Bolder Approach to Education

Can't say I love the name, but this task force of the leading lights in education and more has coalesced around the idea that we need to look beyond schools to solve the "education" problem. Apparently the website went live on June 10, 2008.

It's about time.

Of course, it's not clear how they can make this happen.

Their two principles:
First, conventional education policy making focuses on learning that occurs in formal school settings during the years from kindergarten through high school. The new approach recognizes the centrality of formal schooling, but it also recognizes the importance of high-quality early childhood and pre-school programs, after-school and summer programs, and programs that develop parents’ capacity to support their children’s education. It seeks to build working relationships between schools and surrounding community institutions.

Second, the broader, bolder approach pays attention not only to basic academic skills and cognitive growth narrowly defined, but to development of the whole person, including physical health, character, social development, and non-academic skills, from birth through the end of formal schooling. It assigns value to the new knowledge and skills that young people need to become effective participants in a global environment, including citizenship, creativity, and the ability to respect and work with persons from different backgrounds.

Their general argument:

More than a half century of research has documented a powerful association between social and economic disadvantage and low student achievement. Weakening that association is the fundamental challenge facing America's education policymakers.

The nation's education policy has typically been crafted around the expectation that schools alone can offset the full impact of low socioeconomic status on learning, a theory embodied in the No Child Left Behind law, which passed with bipartisan support in 2001 and is now up for reauthorization. Schools can ameliorate some of the impact of social and economic disadvantage on achievement. Improving our schools, therefore, continues to be a vitally important strategy for promoting upward mobility and for working toward equal opportunity and overall educational excellence.

Evidence demonstrates, however, that achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status are present before children even begin formal schooling. Despite impressive academic gains registered by some schools serving disadvantaged students, there is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can substantially, consistently, and sustainably close these gaps.

Nevertheless, there is solid evidence that policies aimed directly at education-related social and economic disadvantages can improve school performance and student achievement. The persistent failure of policymakers to act on that evidence — in tandem with a schools-only approach — is a major reason why the association between disadvantage and low student achievement remains so strong.

Study about Teens, Video Games, and Civic Engagement

Via Peter Levine, a new study from the MacArthur Foundation about teens and video games.

The lede:
Game playing is universal, diverse, often involves social interaction, and can cultivate teen civic engagement.
. . . . .
Game playing can incorporate many aspects of civic and political life.
  • 76% of youth report helping others while gaming.
  • 44% report playing games where they learn about a problem in society

TPM Discussion of Book on Geoffrey Canada

This week, TPM Cafe is holding a book discussion of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America, which I mentioned a few days ago. I haven't had time to read much of the discussion, and I haven't read the book, but this is likely an important book at a critical moment in our thinking about educational reform.

Publisher's Weekly description (via Amazon):

New York Times journalist Tough profiles educational visionary Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children's Zone—currently serving more than 7,000 children and encompassing 97 city blocks—represents an audacious effort to end poverty within underserved communities.

Canada's radical experiment is predicated upon changing everything in these communities—creating an interlocking web of services targeted at the poorest and least likely to succeed children: establishing programs to prepare and support parents, a demanding k-8 charter school and a range of after-school programs for high school students.

Tough adeptly integrates the intensely personal stories of the staff, students and teachers of the Children's Zone with expert opinions and the broiling debates over poverty, race and education. The author's admiration for Canada and his social experiment is obvious yet tempered by journalistic restraint as he summarizes the current understanding of the causes of poverty and academic underperformance—and their remedies. Smoothly narrated, affecting and heartening, this book gives readers a solid look at the problems facing poor communities and their reformers, as well as good cause to be optimistic about the future.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Technology in education: a ground-map, part a

For this month's "Monthly Forum" (yes I know I'm late to start), I'd like to get a conversation going about the role of technology in education.

For myself, I'm trying to develop a "ground-map of the province" (if you will allow me an obscure reference to Dewey) of issues related to technology in education. This is part of a project that will result in a chapter on philosophical issues related to technology in education for a forthcoming book to which I've been asked to contribute.

Allow me to do some "thinking out loud" here.

Technology is "the application of science (or knowledge) to solve problems."

Technology is not science itself, which is primarily concerned with the production of knowledge and the sorting out of which knowledge is privileged within the academy, by certain people who call themselves "scientists," or by policy-makers. Science clearly has a role in education because we want to have a public that understands its methods, issues, and major findings, and because we want to know how people learn best so we can design education to be efficient and effective.

When we apply science/knowledge to solve educational problems, we are (often? always?) using technology. On this broad definition of technology, schooling is largely a technological enterprise. Schooling technologies include classrooms, chalkboards, books, podiums, graded classrooms, chair-desk, bells, bell schedules, school buses, school buildings, playgrounds, athletic fields, band rooms, band instruments, colored chalk, the architecture of schools, p.a. systems, teacher certification systems, the ways we "divide" subjects into "disciplines," testing (and other assessment approaches of all kinds), school districting, "catchment" areas, curriculum plans, "standards" statements, and many many other activities/processes/devices/frameworks. On this expanded notion of technology, we can say that "schooling" is the application of technology to make mass education possible, affordable, and effective.

Of course, it's also the application of technology to do things other than "education" as well, such as warehousing kids, but let's leave that aside for the moment.

Like all technologies, each item on the list I just generated can be critiqued from several different perspectives, or using many different criteria. Among such criteria include efficiency, effectiveness, humanity, cost-effectiveness, opportunity costs, ease-of-use, standardizability (are they applied in consistent manner), teachability (can teachers/administrators/students learn to use them), fairness, various aesthetic criteria of beautify and "fit," conformity to public values of all kinds, carbon footprint, etc. etc.

Indeed, I'd say the essential question of educational policy is the question of which criteria to apply to evaluating the technologies of education, because this question is basic to other questions such as what resources should we make available to all schools or all students, or to which students, and why.

But we don't tend to talk about this question as if it were a question about technology. Instead, we limit our explicit discussion of technologies to a subset of those that are applied to schooling. Most commonly, we refer to digital technologies such as computers, networks, software, digital cameras, interactive whiteboards, peripherals, etc.

Other ways to delineate a subset of technologies to be referred to are certain critical perspectives (such as those of Foucault or Michael Apple) which talk about "technologies of control." Surely these perspectives are justified in referring to technologies, just as much as the common person is justified in limiting discussion of technologies to what I've described above as "digital technologies." What's important is realizing that any limitation of the word "technology" to particular types of technologies has both motivations and consequences, which should be examined. Thus, the limitation of the discussion to "digital technologies" tends to take OFF the table many of the other things I've listed, such as bell schedules and P.A. systems, even though THOSE technology are pernicious and omnipresent in schools.

Perhaps the common approach,then, is to limit "technology" to those tools and approaches that are not yet universal (or nearly universal) in their application to schools. "Technology," then, is a euphemism for "things that we're still trying to decide whether we need," or "things that only some schools can currently afford."

I guess what I'm saying is, the question of what we MEAN by "technology" is a political one, that perhaps anteceeds questions about the use of any particular technologies in any particular situation.

Okay, I will come back later to continue.....

Our Friend Charles Murray Opines About the Waste (Waste!) Of the College Going Underclass

Citing E. D. Hirsch as an "indispensible thinker" on literacy, Charles Murray tells us that it really isn't worth it for a kid who (quite by coincidence?) "knows that he enjoys working with his hands" to go to college. As usual, he uses some interesting data to make completely misguided assertions. Note, for example, the following excerpt, where we can solve the "misaligned ambitions" of poor and working-class high school students not by helping them achieve their ambitions, or by working to change the nature of professional culture so they feel more welcomed, but by simply shifting them into vocational tracks where they will make more money and be happier.

One aspect of this phenomenon has been labeled misaligned ambitions, meaning that adolescents have career ambitions that are inconsistent with their educational plans. Data from the Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development conducted during the 1990s indicate that misaligned ambitions characterized more than half of all adolescents. Almost always, the misalignment is in the optimistic direction, as adolescents aspire to be attorneys or physicians without understanding the educational hurdles they must surmount to achieve their goals. They end up at a four-year institution not because that is where they can take the courses they need to meet their career goals, but because college is the place where B.A.s are handed out, and everyone knows that these days you’ve got to have a B.A. Many of them drop out. Of those who entered a four-year college in 1995, only 58 percent had gotten their B.A. five academic years later. Another 14 percent were still enrolled. If we assume that half of that 14 percent eventually get their B.A.s, about a third of all those who entered college hoping for a B.A. leave without one.

If these numbers had been produced in a culture where the B.A. was a nice thing to have but not a big deal, they could be interpreted as the result of young adults deciding that they didn’t really want a B.A. after all. Instead, these numbers were produced by a system in which having a B.A. is a very big deal indeed, and that brings us to the increasingly worrisome role of the B.A. as a source of class division. The United States has always had symbols of class, and the college degree has always been one of them. But through the first half of the 20th century, there were all sorts of respectable reasons a person might not go to college—not enough money to pay for college; needing to work right out of high school to support a wife, parents, or younger siblings; or the commonly held belief that going straight to work was better preparation for a business career than going to college. As long as the percentage of college graduates remained small, it also remained true, and everybody knew it, that the majority of America’s intellectually most able people did not have B.A.s.

Note how the BA becomes a "source" of class division, instead of a result of class division.

Just sending this love note out to all those "intellectually most able" people out there in blog land. Pat yourselves on the back. And send everyone else to be a mechanic.

The Problem of Schooling Isn't About Schools

Interesting article today in the New York Times about efforts to create integrated collections of wrap-around services to support schools. As I've argued earlier on this blog, there is a lot of evidence, perhaps most comprehensively described in Richard Rothstein's Class and Schools and in Jean Anyon's Radical Possibilities that many of the key problems of schools are really not the direct result of the schools.

This is not the old argument partly resulting from the Coleman Report that there is something "wrong" with poor families, although some of what the NYT article notes implies this. Instead a key issue is simply that poor kids don't get the kinds of social and material supports that privileged kids do. These include very basic things like poor nutrition, the fact that poor kids often have little or no access to dental care. And the families of poor kids simply don't provide the kinds of entree to middle-class aspects of culture that privileged families do.

However, while all of this is important, the core argument of the article is still faulty. It assumes that if poor kids learn better, this will give them access to better jobs. But as I've noted earlier, and as Anyon describes (PDF), education does not create jobs. On the margins, this can be quite effective. But as a mass solution, it is unlikely to fundamentally change the situation of people trapped in central city areas without jobs for a range of reasons.

The article talks about Geoffry Canada's work. His Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun struck me as one of the most profound works about the challenges of growing up in the inner city that I have read in a long time, and I look forward to looking at the book by the author of the NYT article on his broader work.

Of course, this all brings me back to the need to generate power to make the changes that the article describes. Simply electing Obama will not make this happen. For two reasons which I describe in a pair of posts at Open Left:

In Obama and the Crucial Difference Between Campaign and Community Organizing I show that Obama is not actually teaching people how to do community organizing to generate power, but instead teaching a particular approach to campaigning. Thus, he is not spreading effective skills for making these changes happen.

In The Crucial Difference Between Electoral Politics and Movement Building I discuss why the effort to elect Obama is little or nothing like a Movement, and how his efforts to centralize the campaign effort (by eliminating independent 527s, for example) actually reduces its resemblance to a movement.

Which brings us back to education. If we really want changes to happen that are likely to work better than all the work we have done for decades to improve inner city schools, then we need to rethink fundamentally what it means to support change around schools and education and the social situation of poverty in the United States. We need to think about how our work can contribute to the empowerment of others, instead of thinking so much about essentially utopian visions of pedagogical change.

As I've noted, we probably won't do this. But we shouldn't expect much to change if we don't.