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Posted by on Dec 4, 2006 in At TMV | 6 comments

Conservatives and Education

A… different kind of education

An interesting article at TNR about the conservative model for improving schools.

My wife spent a few years teaching in a mostly low-income elementary school. The main thing I remember her telling me was that parental involvement was a near-perfect predictor of her students’ performance. The kids with active parents did well, and the kids with disengaged parents did poorly.

The great bugaboo of education reform has always been the role of parents. But if a child’s family determines his educational future, then there’s not much point in trying to perfect the school environment. Or so it would seem.

Well, such a point of view would – obviously – be a dramatic over-simplification. Don’t students whose parents are actively involved need great conditions anyway? It’s great that one’s parents are involved, but if the school doesn’t have any books… Besides, couldn’t the school, to a degree at least, make up for the lack of interest from parents? Indeed:

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured a fascinating article by Paul Tough on the conundrum of the education gap between rich and poor (and white and black). The bad news is that this gap is indeed deeply rooted in parenting styles from a very young age. There is a stark difference between the way middle-class or professional parents raise their children and the way poor parents do. The former talk with their children far more, expose them to a broader range of vocabulary, and give them far more positive reinforcement. “The professional parents were giving their children an advantage with every word they spoke,” Tough wrote, “and the advantage just kept building up.”

The good news is that some schools have shown that they can compress this gap with an intensive and properly focused program. A small number of educators have figured out how to drill their students into appropriate behavior and learning. One of the biggest factors in their success seems to be quantity. The students arrive earlier in the day, stay later, and enjoy radically shorter summer vacations.

After this, Jonathan Chait deals with what he considers to be the “wild utopian flights” of conservatives who look at above described ‘success stories’ and reason that, see, one can deal with it in a ‘conservative’ manner.

Two problems Chait addresses regarding the conservative view on education are:

1- The first objection is that schools are, mostly, funded locally. The obvious results: poor areas do not have the money to improve their schools.

2- According to Chait, teachers are “heavily underpaid”. As a result, can one really expect them to work overtime? Isn’t that the opposite, one could say of a capitalist system? Pay little, work hard? The capitalist system rewards people who work hard. This means that, if teachers are willing to work harder and more, they should be, extra, rewarded, because if one does not reward them, they will not do so.

Anyway, it is an interesting article, although one that over-simplifies the matter a bit perhaps.

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  • Doctor Gonzo

    Yes, parental involvement is the key. So how do you fix that? “Compress” the gap does not mean eliminate it, so how can you ensure that the gap isn’t there in the first place?

    Then, there is the issue of funding. Will the conservatives in the wealthy suburbs consent to paying for inner-city schools? So far, efforts to do this haven’t worked so well.

    The teacher pay issue can’t be ignored. True, the teacher’s union has gotten in the way of a lot of reforms, but conservatives can’t blame everything on them. The real question is how to come up with a pay system that pays teachers what they are worth and rewards the right behavior. That’s tough.

  • C Stanley

    One thought that comes to mind for funding extended school days in inner city schools would be to pair up the funding with the child care funding in the state workfare programs (where states assist working mothers with childcare expenses so that they can work instead of being on welfare). That way, instead of the childcare money going to a babysitter who isn’t providing a growth environment for the child, it would go toward creating that in an extended school day. The time could be used for tutoring, academic enrichment programs, etc, that kids in wealthier neighborhoods get either directly from their parents or through extracurricular activities.

  • Eural

    I’ve taught for 15 years at a public high school in the southern US and the #1 pattern to student success has been parental involvement and home environment. I teach the lowest level classes in the school and some of the highest and repeatedly the home environment (and lack thereof) makes all the difference. My wife teaches elementary school and she’s the exact same pattern starting as early as first grade.

    We are constantly being lectured by the authorities about the education gap between black males and everyone else in the system. But if we bring up the overwhelming cultural baggage those students bring into the classroom or their complete lack of parental support and discipline we’re told the problem is 1) our racism 2) our lack of enthusiasm for teaching and/or 3) our failure to hold those kids to high expectations. In other words, the only ones who are allowed to be blamed for education failures in our culture are the teachers.

    Public education can always use improvement but until we get our cultural and social priorities straight there will only be rare successes in the classroom among the lower socio-economic demographic.

  • Elrod

    I agree that parental involvement is critical. It’s not just racial. I live in a town with a large white working class and I’m shocked at how little the poorer parents read to their kids. And it’s not like they’re too exhausted or don’t have money for children’s books or don’t have time. They just don’t think it matters.

    On a purely anecdotal note, I spoke with an African American woman about a year ago who told me about how often she reads to her daughters. She says she started reading to her first daughter while she was still in the womb. She learned to do this because she worked in a mental health facility and one of the nurses told her how important reading to her child was – nobody else had ever told her that. Anyway, one day she was reading to her child on the bus and another woman gave her a dirty look. Finally the other woman asked her, “Why are you even bothering to read to her? She doesn’t even know what you’re saying?” The woman I spoke with then responded to the other woman by saying, “Maybe if your momma had read to you when you were little, you wouldn’t be so stupid.” It was perfect.

    The problem is that many poor people – black and white – do not know the importance of reading to their infants or making sure to communicate with them in complete sentences or using using consistency over severity in disciplining their children. Poverty creates incredible stresses on families; money, more than anything else, drives families apart. Imagine where the child fits in in a collapsing relationship. As such, it’s incumbent upon the parent – whichever parent – to spend at least 20 minutes a day reading to the children from infancy on. Those first years make a HUGE difference.

  • Kevin H

    It sounds to me like schools should focus on teaching the parents as well as the kids. Educating them on the importance of reading etc might be a big help. However, there is definately some complications to this idea as a single mother working 2 jobs probably doesn’t have time to go to a monthly class on how to raise her children better.

    Also, on a related note. All of these findings lead me to believe that early education is the most important because it sets up the way in which the child will aproach learning for the rest of their life. For that reason, it makes sense that Kindergarden and Preschool teachers should be the most qualified and the highest paid.

  • Jim S

    Kevin H beat me to it. Teach the parents. But I’ve always thought that longer school days and shorter vacations would help a great deal. Think about how much of the beginning of the school year is just getting back up to speed and reminding the kids of things from last year. In addition I’ve always thought that the first year or two should focus almost exclusively on reading and some math. Any other subject you feel just has to be introduced at that age should be used in large part to emphasize the importance of reading. Then expand the curriculum once the foundation for everything else has been strongly built.

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