The NY Times Magazine cover story yesterday was on the disadvantage faced by low-income students and what it would mean to take seriously the idea of "no child left behind." It's an interesting article, pulling together a lot of different strands of research and thinking. I want to try to pull the different strands apart, though, because I agree with some of the assumptions behind the article, but not all.
1) The first claim is that low-income children enter school at a significant disadvantage compared to middle-income children. I think there's pretty much broad consensus behind this one. Anyone care to argue it?
2) Next, Tough argues that this disadvantage is primarily due to differences in parenting styles, especially the use of language. There's not a consensus on this one. On the one hand, there are those (cf. The Bell Curve) who argue that the differences in performance are larguely genetic. I think that's wrong -- there's good evidence that genetics is a strong driver of differences in IQ among middle- and upper-class children, but that poor kids often don't get to develop up to their full potential. On the other hand, there are a lot of liberals who would reject Tough's claim that parenting style matters more than the material deprivation that poor kids experience.
(Tough doesn't entirely dismiss the role of poverty, but concludes that parenting matters more: "True, every poor child would benefit from having more books in his home and more nutritious food to eat (and money certainly makes it easier to carry out a program of concerted cultivation). But the real advantages that middle-class children gain come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey.")
As Jal Mehta points out at TMPCafe, this isn't just an academic dispute -- it has real policy consequences. If you think that material hardship is the main reason poor children are lagging, it points you in the direction of child allowances and other income redistribution schemes. But if parenting matters more, just giving poor parents more money won't solve the problem. You either need to somehow change their parenting practices (possibly through some form of home visits), or compensate for them (through programs like Head Start and redesigned schools).
I think the evidence that there are class-based differences in parenting practices is strong (I've written about Lareau's Unequal Childhoods here before), but am not quite willing to write off the role of money.
3) The next question is whether poor kids are entering school so far behind that they couldn't succeed if given schools with the resources of the average American public school. Tough suggests that they can't, because there are so few examples of schools that are succeeding with overwhelmingly poor, minority populations. I'm not convinced that makes his point -- as Kozol argues in Shame of the Nation, it's essentially an experiment that has never been tried. The best argument for Tough's position, I think, is that the small number of low-income kids in predominently middle-class schools have generally not done particularly well. (And I think the strongest part of NCLB is the attention that it has forced school administrators to pay to that achievement gap.)
Tough argues that the kinds of schools that have succeeded -- and are needed for widespread success -- provide three key components: extended school days and years, highly structured lesson plans, with frequent testing to make sure that the desired skills are being aquired, and an explicit focus on affecting the behavior and values of the students by "teaching character." He writes:
The message inherent in the success of their schools is that if poor students are going to catch up, they will require not the same education that middle-class children receive but one that is considerably better; they need more time in class than middle-class students, better-trained teachers and a curriculum that prepares them psychologically and emotionally, as well as intellectually, for the challenges ahead of them.
But is this a better education? It's certainly a more costly education, once you burn through the supply of true believers who are willing to subsidize such schools by working extra hours for no extra pay.
But I'm reminded of Scrivenings' post about his horror at a New York Times story about a kindergarten class that is operated along such lines. While some parents would welcome the eased demand for after school care, I think an equal number of middle-class parents would be outraged if their kids' schools added another 3 hours of classes a day, especially if that time were spent on core reading and math rather than "enrichment" activities. I know that my biggest concern about sending D to a school with lousy test scores was fear that they'd adopt a drill-and-kill approach.
And I know a lot of good teachers resist such a highly structured approach, prefering the flexibility to follow the children's interests and take advantage of teachable moments. Kozol argues that schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods get caught in vicious cycles, where they get the least experienced teachers, so the administrators rely on scripted lessons, which makes the schools even less attractive for creative teachers.
Edited to add that none of this says that any individual child can't succeed. There are certainly kids who overcome mediocre parenting and indifferent schools to achieve great things. And there are poor parents who devote all their limited resources to making things better for their kids. All this is about averages.