Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Readings for Feb. 26

I am the lone standard-bearer this week. Apologies for the length!

Kahlenberg discusses how school segregation is making inroads again, not only in cases of race and ethnicity but class. In many cases, this involves both geography and ethnicity in combination with socioeconomic class. He points out that “classmates are a resource, too – in fact, a more crucial one than books, pencils and laptops.” Race was not a defining factor, but better preparation and higher aspirations were.

In some ways, being around more affluent/more prepared classmates could be seen as a form of experiential learning. Increased exposure to words and ideas from fellow classmates is perhaps more important than what a student learns from a teacher.

Several factors have aided in school improvement across the country. Most indicators of quality schools are found in mid-and-higher-income schools than those from more impoverished areas. Achievement is highest in middle to higher income schools, which attract the best teachers so lower-income students may need to be mixed into mid-and-higher income schools to simply gain access to better teaching. Parental involvement in classroom and extracurricular activities also plays a role in improving student achievement. Again, socioeconomic status predicts parental involvement.

The No Child Left Behind Act has also reinforced the notion of segregation by placing the emphasis on test scores. While it claimed that failing schools would be overhauled and improved, little action has taken place. Meanwhile, families pondering a move can use the much-publicized test scores as a reason to not move into a school’s attendance area, thus reinforcing a school’s negative reputation.

In short, Kahlenberg sees not one educational system in America but several – systems catering to different segments of the population, incomparable with each other.

Margolis describes East River High school as a place where the tools existed but without any indication of how to use them. In one situation where a class was actually offered, the teacher had trained himself at home. This directly contrasts one aspect of what Kahlenberg cited: the best teachers are allowed to teach in their own area of expertise.

Kahlenberg describes how students learn best from being within the context of their peers. Though he does this in reference to lower income students learning from students with higher aspirations, the same holds true for the computer science students in Margolis’s article: the ones with the most interest were recruited by friends.

The failure can be blamed in part on a lack of critical thinking and context that shows how actual computer science programming can make a real-world impact. The East River curriculum, what little there was, focused on skills rather than critical thinking concepts. In contrast, note how the video production classes that allowed the students to not only manipulate the data but create scripts and storyboards allowed the students to expand their horizons and think critically while learning skills.

Again harkening back to Kahlenberg’s expectation of a good teacher or curriculum, the best schools offered rich, demanding curricula. East River was in no way prepared to offer any curriculum beyond the most basic. Because of both student and teacher scheduling, East River could only focus on attempting to meet the state- and federally-mandated testing standards, not the more specific electives like computer classes. Moreover, even the most dedicated teachers expected very little from their students, relegating them to less demanding work with very little guidance. When East River DID offer more guidance through extracurricular math classes, the students displayed both interest and perseverance.

In both Kahlenberg’s and Margolis’s articles, they imply that the problem of equity is one that cannot be solved by anything less than a comprehensive change to the way we place students together. Students need to be around people (classmates or staff) who encourage them to attain higher goals, regardless of background.

Moreover, entire families bear the burden of lower expectations. It’s not just vocational vs. college prep courses in school; think of the fact that lower income families are less likely to take advantage of private school voucher programs, perhaps because they are less likely to trust any part of the “system” that has failed them thus far.


  1. One thing I was wondering about is the drop out rate since No Child Left Behind. Has it changed? Because the standards for schools under this is determined by test scores, many schools will hold back certain students so that the overall test scores will be higher. Eventually, many of those students have just slipped through the cracks and dropped out. This could be a reason why overhauls of schools have not occurred. There was a PBS Frontline special on this topic several years ago.

  2. I am really wondering something, what effect does it have on the "middle-income" students to have a more diverse population. How do their scores measure up? Are their scores raised by the diversity, stay the same, lowered?

    I'm just curious how one would balance these things when we are so geographically segregated, do you bus someone an hour when there's a school next door. Hmmmm.

  3. Ellen,

    I don't have much experience with No Child Left Behind on a high school level, but I know that repeated testing severely affected my students' self-esteem and interest in school. Rather than benefiting children from diverse socioeconomic, racial, and and educational backgrounds, the structure of No Child Left Behind seems to target and arguably punish students who aren't meeting grade standards. As a former educator, I fail to see how making a struggling student take a test multiple times (in the hope that s/he will squeak by and meet standards) will at all improve their ability to think critically, enjoy school, and be able to see how an education will positively affect their teenage and adult lives. I wouldn't be surprised if No Child Left Behind at the high school level does exactly what you suggested.

  4. While reading the first article, I thought about the potential barriers of the individuals learning in the "middle-class" educational environment. While I found it hard to define exactly who would fall into the this category, I found myself thinking about the issues that lie in schools, both private and public, with students who are considered to be in the upper class because of the income brought in by their parents.

    One thing that I thought the article didn't talk about was drug usage in the upper class schools. I think that students in this class often find themselves being pushed well beyond their limit in terms of academic success and extracurricular activities. Some students may resort to drugs or other irrational behavior to circumvent the stress/pressure of being in the elite, upper class.

    Just something to think about.

  5. Zack, I'd turn that idea around a little and say -- maybe we ought to think about how damaging it is to middle-class students to never come into contact with lower-class students or students of color. I know I went to a hugely homogenous white middle-class school (both for high school and for my undergrad), and it does make thinking about the world a constant struggle. It's hard to empathize with people you've never known as people: not impossible, but hard.

  6. I thought the Kahlenberg article was a good read, but I was thrown off by the tone of the poor as a social other that needs to be 'fixed', rather than the responsibility to provide equal opportunity to access our publicly funded instituions.

    I also wonder how the discussion of public schools originating in an intent to create good factory workers fits into the framework of these articles. Because I'm not convinced the expectation for public schools to support social mobility is the only expectation at play here, but that expectation isn't interrogated in a very transparent way in these articles.

  7. Laura -- yes, that. I scribbled a note in the margins along the lines of, "what are the problems with making everyone more like the middle class?" Obviously we'd like students to learn more and do better for themselves, but how much of the social context to the way that works right now is absolutely necessary?

    There was a little talk about this in the discussion of the traditional denegration of "hand work" versus "brain work," and I wish the writer had gone into that a little more.

  8. The factory worker/vocational emphasis is ironic, too, because technology and outsourcing are taking many of these jobs away as well. Isn't this reminiscent of the girl learning the latest version of Photoshop only to find that she needs to learn something else entirely?

    The concept of "brain work" is such a tough thing to quantify. We KNOW that critical thinking and creativity are huge factors in knowledge acquisition and retention, but because they're not "rote" subjects they're not emphasized. In this article, however, the "brain work" they discuss sounds more like the difference between preparing students to be typists or professors. Neither view is ideal.

  9. I can't help but think of my own experiences in high school, with about 500 students, mostly white, with varied socioeconomic statuses. There was also a large Native population because we were close to a reservation. Of course this example is different from somewhere like East River because it's a rural area--but it seemed that even though we were all grouped together in a small school in which attention from the teacher was presumably available to everyone--that the lower class kids really accelerated to the academic standing of the higher class kids. So, I've just been thinking about why that might have been...

  10. and on a side note, I think it's hilarious and also sort of interesting that you guys are posting on the blog while we're in class:)

  11. TYPO! meant to say "the lower class kids NEVER really accelerated to the..."

  12. One thing the article about East River high made wonder about was the number of students whose parents are illegal immigrants. That fact would impact parental involvement which was one of the key factors mentioned by the first article. In Milwaukee, a speaker I heard on Tuesday said that even a rumor of immigration officials being at school conferences or events meant fewer parents showed up and that enrollment dropped in the school as well. I would presume that one would find similar problems in California.