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Scrooge and School Reform

As we enter the holiday season, our thoughts naturally turn to family celebrations, but also to those who do not share the advantages and blessings we enjoy. We all know Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol and the story of Scrooge. It's played regularly on television at this time of year, and we see how Scrooge comes to understand the plight of Tiny Tim and his family and realizes that he must strive to be kinder and more generous to others.

If I could update this tale for today's school reformers, I would begin by asking them to read a very important paper by Helen F. Ladd titled "Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence." A professor of economics at Duke University, Ladd is one of the nation's leading experts on issues of accountability. The paper was delivered at an academic conference last month. I recommend it to you and to all our readers. Aside from footnotes, it is only 25 pages long. (Coincidentally, Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske published an opinion piece, summarizing her paper, in The New York Times on Sunday. Read the full paper for the citations.)

I read Professor Ladd's paper and planned to summarize the key points, but when I finished, I realized that my copy was studded with underlining, asterisks, and stars. So let me quote from Ladd's abstract:

Current U.S. policy initiatives to improve the U.S. education system, including No Child Left Behind, test-based evaluation of teachers and the promotion of competition, are misguided because they either deny or set to the side a basic body of evidence documenting that students from disadvantaged households on average perform less well in school than those from more advantaged families. Because these policy initiatives do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, they have contributed little—and are not likely to contribute much in the future—to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm. Addressing the educational challenges faced by children from disadvantaged families will require a broader and bolder approach to education policy than the recent efforts to reform schools.

A proponent of evidence-based policymaking, Ladd shows that our current school reform policies are not based on evidence. She cites research demonstrating that the gaps between the most affluent and the least affluent children more than doubled in the past half-century, and that the income-based achievement gap is now much larger than the racial achievement gap. She points out that the racial achievement gap narrowed from the 1970s to the 1980s and has remained stagnant since then.

Children from low-income households are more likely to experience poor health and low birth weight, more likely to change residences more frequently and move from school to school, have less access to books and language experiences, and less access to high-quality preschool or to after-school programs and summer activities that middle-income families take for granted. As every testing program reveals, the average test scores of low-income students are likely to be lower than those of their middle-income and high-income peers.

Poverty makes a difference in test scores, and Ladd shows that this is the case not only in the U.S., but in other nations as well, even in such high-performing nations as Korea, Finland, and Canada. But our impoverished students seem to do "particularly badly" compared with their peers in other countries, "while U.S. students from more advantaged backgrounds perform reasonably well by international standards." It is disturbing that we have so many more impoverished students—"more than 2-and-a-half times that in Finland and Canada and 50 percent more than in the Netherlands," and this disparity is reflected in our national performance. We should be paying more attention to meeting the needs of our poorest students, not just to raise their test scores but to improve their lives.

The public rhetoric of school reform refers to global competition but Professor Ladd says: "Perhaps even more important, a well-educated populace is essential for a functioning democracy and for the nurturing of a culturally rich and innovative society."

So what does she recommend?

First, we could reduce poverty directly, but she recognizes that this is unlikely in the current economic and political environment.

Second, we could deny that there is any correlation between poverty and educational achievement and expect the schools alone to solve the problems of inequality. She writes: "That is, in fact what our current federal policy, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), does." She asks what possible reasons policymakers would have to deny a correlation that is so obvious and suggests the following possible reasons:

1) Policymakers believe that schools should be able to overcome the effects of poverty, thereby overlooking the difference between what is desirable and what is feasible;

2) Policymakers refuse to acknowledge that some children won't reach 100 percent proficiency. She recalls that former President George W. Bush liked to say that we should not accept "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Thus, in theory, all children should reach 100 percent proficiency, but as Ladd points out, "Simply wanting something to be true does not make it so."

3) Policymakers claim that if some schools can achieve high academic results for disadvantaged children, then all schools should be expected to do so. Ladd points out that the few schools that appear to have done so usually have significant additional resources, longer hours, and the type of motivated parents who seek out such schools. And, "believing that one can simply extrapolate from these few success stories to the system as a whole requires a willful denial of the basic empirical relationship between [socioeconomic status] and educational achievement."

4) Undoubtedly, some who deny the correlation between poverty and academic outcomes have "the desire to discredit schools and generate pressure for greater privatization of the education system." The No Child Left Behind Act, she notes, leads "either to large numbers of failing schools or to dramatic lowering of state standards. Both outcomes serve to discredit the public education system and lend support to arguments that the system itself is failing and needs to be changed in major ways."

Ladd criticizes the current vogue to judge teachers by their students' test scores. Such evaluations, she writes, "are likely to do more harm than good because they start from the assumption that teachers are shirking rather than the assumption that they need support and constructive counseling."

Ladd suggests that what is needed are positive policy interventions, such as early-childhood and preschool programs; school-based health clinics and social services; after-school programs and summer programs; and paying more attention to inputs such as school quality and school processes than to outcome measures such as test scores.

She concludes: "The most productive step for the federal government in the short run would be to eliminate No Child Left Behind."

Helen Ladd's paper is so rich with data, evidence, research, logic, common sense, and humanity that even Scrooge might be persuaded to pay attention. Even Scrooge might agree that our current efforts at school reform are ignoring the needs of the neediest children. Even Scrooge might wake up and realize that schools alone cannot equalize vast income gaps and cannot reinvent our social order.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and Happy Kwanzaa to all!

And warm wishes for a great 2012!

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...