Why American Education Reform is Doomed (Part 2)

March 16, 2010

Part 2

Student Population

This is the big one and it’s going to take a while for me to get through all the ins and outs, but, at the heart of the matter this is nothing more than a socio-economic issue.

As noted, reforms tend to focus almost solely on the population of teachers. This fails because, as you might guess and as study, after study, after study shows, the dominant factor in student performance is socio-economic standing. In fact, this is such a dominant factor that it accounts for at least 70% of the problem. Let’s think about that for a minute and do some fun math.

Earlier, I mentioned a school in Rhode Island that fired all of its teachers. That school had a 50% dropout rate and 7% of its students tested as proficient in math and science. It was, of course, in a highly depressed area. Now, let’s do the math… 70% of 50% is 35%. That means that, if we took these same students and changed nothing about them but where and who they come from but left them in the same school with the same teachers, we could expect the dropout rate to sink to 15%. Additionally, 70% of 93% (the percentage of students failing at math and science) is 65%. Which means, that if you give these students different backgrounds, but leave everything else (again, including teachers) the same you have a school with a 15% dropout rate and 72% of the population testing as proficient in math and science. Incidentally, the average dropout rate in the US is 16%. Crazy, huh?

For reasons I will discuss later, I am willing to concede that this school probably had a teacher population that was below average overall. So let’s be cruel. Let’s assume that these teachers are so bad that they account for the entire rest of the problem. That’s 30% that assumes that facilities, administration, anything else you can think of have absolutely no effect on this student population. Even if that is the case – even if we replace this population of super-awful teachers with a group of educating superhumans then, at best, you can expect a school with a 35% dropout rate and 35% of students testing as proficient in math and science. Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, I give you socio-economic status: The 400 ton elephant in the room of education reform.

But there’s more…

People like to talk about vouchers. President Obama and lots of other government-kiddos think they are totally the greatest. If private schools can do the job better, then let private schools do it, they say. Private schools are the bee’s knees. They are the cat’s pajamas. Our officials send them handmade Valentines every day of the year. This is stupid, and here’s why:

The assumption behind vouchers, which we have already proven to be faulty, is that schools are the primary problem and that parents with children in failing schools will take advantage of this program to get their kids into better (private) schools. The problem with this is that a lot, maybe even most, of the kids who would benefit from something like this don’t have parents advocating for them. This is the only part of this series where I am just going to ask you to take my word for it, but I’ve been in the trenches and I can tell you that, almost without exception, the parents of your most difficult students are the dregs of society. They will swear at you. They will say things like, “I can’t do anything with him either.” They have been to jail, often more than once. They may be engaged in criminal activity right now. Or they may just think education is worthless (“I dropped out and I’m doing fine.”) Many of these people should not be parents, but they are. Their children need help more than anyone else, but a voucher system does absolutely nothing for them.

But it gets deeper still…

The magic number for an at-risk student population is generally accepted to be between 30% and 40%. Any more than that and the school can be expected to experience sever difficulties in educating its general population. Basically, the way it is supposed to work is that kids who come from difficult backgrounds are supposed to be exposed to kids whose parents have taught them the value of education and, in general, how to act. Because of the magic of peer pressure, the majority tends to rule here, which is why the percentages are so important. The vouchers system throws this all out of wack.

What happens is this: Good parents who are unfortunate enough to live in a place where the public school population is pretty rough (and thus the schools look bad) take advantage of vouchers and move their kids to the private school population where they join the children of more affluent parents who would never let their children sniff the public system. What does all this mean? Let me spell it out.

Public schools are largely underfunded and have large populations of students who are unprepared to learn because certain basic needs have not been met. Parents who are paying attention and have the opportunity take their kids to private schools (this is a rational action, by the way. I don’t blame these parents at all. My children will not be going to school in the district where I currently teach).

Private schools are well funded and, this is the big one, DO NOT HAVE TO TAKE EVERYONE. If they see a kid is causing trouble, they can boot that kid out. No questions asked. Where does that kid end up? If you guessed, “public schools,” congratulations, you can read.

In taking students exclusively from the low-risk population, private schools effectively drive up the ratio of high-risk to low-risk students in the public schools. Remember, the higher this ratio is, the harder it is for public schools to succeed because high-risk kids take a lot of extra effort from teachers, which means your low-risk student gets less attention.

So, what you end up with is a school filled with high risk students and teachers that are ready to leave the profession* because dealing with high risk students all day is one of the most stressful jobs in the public sector and it’s hard to do your job when it makes you miserable and you’re not exactly raking it in. Additionally, the drain of talented, low-risk students to private schools creates a drag on test scores which, as we all know, are the only way to assess anything in education and should always go up, no matter what happens. Also, test scores should be the same everywhere because all people are exactly the same and exist in exactly the same circumstances.

*A momentary tangent: I often hear it claimed the private schools have better teachers. There is no data to support this. In fact, go ask a private school teacher why they aren’t in public schools and they will tell you it’s all about the population. Believe it or not, public schools typically pay more, and often a lot more, than private schools. They have to or no one would work from them (a quick example: private schools where I live typically pay about $10,000 a year less than public schools. That is not pocket-change. Yet, they are not hurting for teachers. This should tell you something about the difference in working conditions).

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