Monday, September 18, 2006

The edu-grenade, please handle with caution.

Kevin Drum pulls the pin on a edu-debate grenade here. Kevin links to a Prospect article that poses the question of whether the bitter education debates over homework, cut scores, and public vs. private funding are are inconsequential next to the issue of Socio-Economic Inequaility. I guarantee you as someone who hangs out in the rough education hoods of the blogsphere that a nasty brawl is going to break out on the education blogs over this question when it is posed on an influential liberal blog.

Kevin notes:
I'll confess that I have a lot of sympathy for this view. The education world seems to be perpetually riven by fantastically shrill battles between traditionalists and progressives, and in the end it's hard to see that either side ever manages to win decisively in any area. These battles have swung back and forth for decades (the traditionalists seem to have won the latest round in the math wars, for example), but there's precious little evidence that kids today learn any more or less than kids in the 40s and 50s. Or the 60s or 70s. Does any of this stuff really make a difference?

My take is that I too am sympathetic to the viewpoint that the social capital that derives from socio-economic class plays a large role in shaping educational outcomes. But the way Kevin and the Prospect writer poses this question raises several concerns for me.

First, both Kevin and the Prospect article ignore the growing consensus in the educational debate wars that one of the most critical elements in improving student performance is the quality of the teacher. In a world where you can dig up a study to justify virtually every possible viewpoint, that kind of consensus is rare. The better trained, qualified, and motivated among other qualities the teachers are, the better the students do. Studies seem to vary on the improvement in terms of student scores, but they appear to be signficant. By signficant I mean sometimes in the double digits in terms of test scores if I have interpretated those studes accurately. This is a constant theme in education debate circles and they don't seem to be aware of it, or don't consider it important. The reason I point this out is that teacher quality seems to a factor independent of a students economic background ,and it would seem to bear out the argument of many in the education reform movement that there are reforms that should be carried out that are not dependent on economic inequality.

Second, whenever we use jargon like socio-economic inequality, can someone offer a definition when they use it, even in a blog post? Is that strictly parental income and educational background? Inequality is a slippery term these days. Do we count median income in the district as a factor? It's important to know this because of the role property taxes play in funding schools in the United States. We toss these terms around and I suspect they mean different things to different people. I assume that Sociologists have a professional definition of the term, but is that definition used by other academic disciplines like economics?

I'm not convinced that it follows that if socio-economic inequality is important that it renders all other debates as trivial as they seem to be implying. I suspect that even to the most liberal education experts and wonks, the importance of inequaltiy is still unclear, despite numerous and ongoing attempts to quanitify it in a meaningful way. The pushback from people who are advocating for reforms in our public educational systems to Kevin's question is that too often, the economic inequality issue is used as an excuse for a host of political, bureaucratic, and systemic failures on the part of all the players in the education game. Before you ask taxpayers to assume a larger taxation burden, is it too much to ask that we come up with the most efficient, productive, and pedagogically sound system we can under the current financial scheme? Virtualy nobody is arguing we are doing all we can with what we have in terms of resources. We can and should do better despite any social, economic or funding issues. Without a determined and credible effort in this regard, cynical enemies of public education will have a strong hand in subverting and defeating attempts to expand our capital investments in addressing socio-economic inequality in terms of education.

I think we should be extremely careful when we make these broad correlations between class and possible life outcomes. I know this is just a blog post and an online magazine article and it should not be parsed like an academic publication. But, I don't think it's too much to ask that we exhibit caution in tying the cause of improving socio-economic inequality to educational outcomes. Improving socio-economic outcomes should be and is a legitimate goal for liberalism and progressives on it's own merits. If memory serves, the advocates of the Great Society made numrous grand proclamations about the social ills that would disappear if their programs were enacted. Cynical ideologues like Ronald Reagan used this as a way of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. An example I would use is AFDC, which was justfiable as a way of reducing the suffering of poverty, but was not designed or effective at eliminating root causes. My point is that any specific effort by the government to address economic inequality should not be burdened with as complex a problem as public educations challenges. It' way too easy to get hubristic and self-righteous on this issue, particulary when we tie the cause of improving our kids education to it. I'm not saying they aren't related or it's neccesarily a bad notion. I'm advocating caution in what we claim our efforts, whatever they may be, can accomplish.

Ultimately, I strongly suspect that if we want to make a quantam leap forward in educational outcomes for future generations, we are going to have to address the issue of economic class and inequality. But I would argue that issues of curriculum, teacher quality, testing methodolgies and data interpretation, fiscal and political governance, and public versus private funding are important and should not be dismissed as trivial distractions. Homework debates might seem silly depending on the context, but it's damn important to the daily lives of teachers, students and parents, all of whom are less concerned with baroque terms like socio-economic inequality, and more with how well their kids are reading and adding, and if they will graduate high school and college. If you want to advance this cause, you need to convince those sorts of stakeholders in its value.

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