Educational Quagmire

From The Times:

The new statistics, part of a push to realign state standards with college performance, show that only 23 percent of students in New York City graduated ready for college or careers in 2009, not counting special-education students. That is well under half the current graduation rate of 64 percent, a number often promoted by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as evidence that his education policies are working.

But New York City is still doing better than the state’s other large urban districts. In Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers, less than 17 percent of students met the proposed standards, including just 5 percent in Rochester.

This is yet another punch to the gut in a series of blows to the future prospects of New York’s kids. Frankly, I’m a bit dazed at this point.

How can things be this terrible? Is our educational system itself to blame? Or are these the inevitable results of rapidly rising income inequality and the well-documented social ills that accompany it?

A friend of mine teaches middle schoolers in the South Bronx. I suspect that he’s superb at what he does, and that New York would be a better place if we had more teachers like him. But when I hear about the huge range of problems that his kids face, it’s clear that society is asking him to be a teacher, parent, big brother, neighbor, cop, and social worker to over 100 (arguably hormonally psychotic) teenagers. It’s an impossible task.

President Obama’s recognition of teachers as “nation builders” in his State of the Union address was welcome and uplifting rhetoric. (My friend was a “nation builder” on his Facebook profile for several days.) But does the President — does anyone — really know how we can recover from this educational disaster without addressing the social and economic ills at its core?

Sadly, the latest reform ideas that intuitively appeal to some of us — charter schools, teacher accountability — are showing mixed results. True, there have been phenomenally successful cases like charter school operator KIPP, which currently serves about 1,600 kids in NYC, 97% of whom are African-American or Latino and 87% of whom go on to college. But the broader evidence on charter school effectiveness is unclear at best. Moreover, it seems almost impossible to hold public school teachers accountable for results when the very metrics used to judge success are so unreliable. Even some of the original advocates of choice and accountability like NYU’s Diane Ravitch are recanting in the face of a host of unintended consequences.

If teachers in urban America are our “nation builders,” are we engaged in the Marshall Plan or the Iraq War?

I honestly don’t know.


  1. Chris says:

    Having now worked in the public school system in Brooklyn for a couple of years, I would say much more of the problem comes from income inequality. I’ve worked among really wonderful teachers who really care about trying to make a difference and who do all they can to reach these kids. But the task is just too daunting.

    Many of the kids don’t show up to school regularly, and there’s no better way to not succeed in school than not showing up a lot of the time. Now this might be because the kids have to work to support themselves (many of them don’t have a stable home to support them), or to support their family. Or it may be that their situation at home is such that no knows or cares that they’re absent as much as they are.

    And, of course, that’s just an easily recognizable and diagnosable problem. There are many, many more that are more subtle and more complex and thus all the more difficult to rectify.

    It seems to me that folks who talk about “education reform” always focus on the teachers and performance, etc, because it’s a (relatively) easy fix. Teachers are an easy target and it’s easy to find an example here and there of teachers who are failing their students. That one example can allow “reformers” to paint most or all teachers with the same brush. This happens largely, in my opinion, because the problems that actually need to be solved, i.e. the debilitating income inequality in this country and the effects those economic conditions have on vast swaths of our population, are EXTREMELY difficult to tackle, politically, if not practically. Teachers end up as the scape goat.

  2. kenan says:

    Charter schools are like the S.U.V.’s of the educational system; they’re great, just so long as you and your own children are the only people on the road you care about.

    Because of their selection processes, charter schools essentially skim from the larger student pool those students with the most active and involved parents. There are clearly documented cases where this has benefited the kids that were chosen; what’s less reported is how the schools from which those students and parents have been taken are affected.

    • Andrew says:

      Kenan, I think that the “selection bias” issue is extremely important in judging charters’ effectiveness. But it’s not so simple as you suggest.

      KIPP NYC, for example, admits applicants through a random open lottery process. They only give modest preference to those who qualify for school lunch subsidy (that is, the poorest applicants), those with siblings already in the program (to make things easier for parents), and those who live in the neighborhood (mostly very poor areas).

      Admittedly, there is some self-selection going on insofar as parents have to enter their kids in the lottery. But it is apparently extremely easy to do. There is also some ongoing controversy about the extent to which their underperforming kids drop out, thus positively skewing their ultimate results. But this seems to be a modest effect.

      The demographics certainly reflect that their student population is underserved: 99% Black or Latino and 80% qualifying for reduced-price or free school lunch.

    • Andrew says:

      One other point that I struggle with: let’s assume that your argument is correct — that charters like KIPP are getting a marginal benefit by “skimming” kids with the most active parents. It may be the case that the non-charter schools that those kids would have attended otherwise would’ve benefited from greater parental involvement, as you suggest. But it’s also possible that those same parents would have been less engaged in a traditional school environment with (possibly) weaker teachers or administrators or a less demanding curriculum. Similarly, those (possibly) stronger students might not have done nearly as well in a traditional school environment.

      Finally, if we grant all of your assumptions, isn’t there still an argument in favor of letting high-potential kids and parents seek out an environment in which they believe they are more likely to succeed? I understand and sympathize with the argument in favor of community commitment and collective benefit. But is it right for the state to stand in the way of students and parents who are trying to improve their chances?

  3. Keith says:

    New York City School Chancellor Cathie Black weighs in on the topic today in an Op-Ed in the Daily News:

  4. Carolyn says:

    Part of the problem is that school curricula here and across the nation have gotten tied to the tests they use to evaluate students. Math and reading drive these tests, and other subjects are neglected. This might make you think that concentrating on math and reading would bring up performance on the tests, but it doesn’t seem to.

    My hunch is that these things are tested because that’s what employers are looking for, but think of your own experience in school. Weren’t there other subjects that interested you? I for one was glad to put away the math book and take out the science book or the history book. Or maybe you just put up with all of it so you could go to art class or gym. All these things enrich a person’s experience and, I believe, their understanding of the world. They also make school a more complete and compelling experience; every student (especially the average and struggling) has to find something to motivate him or her. What could be more boring than being drilled all the time on questions that will appear on multiple choice or short answer tests?

    Frankly, I think our last two mayors have been very dismissive of what once made New York City schools some of the best in the nation. Guiliani seemed to want model things to match the Catholic schools he attended, and Bloomberg sees education as a way station to getting rich. Until the diversity of peoples’ experience and expectations is addressed, I suspect preparation for college and the work would aren’t going to to improve much.Both teachers and their children deserve more respect.

    • Chris says:

      Carolyn, I’m curious, because it’s not something I know much about. You said the last two mayors have been dismissive of what once made New York City schools some of the best in the nation. What did the schools used to be doing that they’re not doing now that was seemingly so effective?

  5. Richard says:

    Having evaluated youth for a Calif based Juvenile Court for 20+ years I saw firsthand what happens to kids who have been failing in school. A very large number of them abuse drugs and/or alcohol and/or commit crimes. The latter puts them in the Juvenile Justice System where a large amount of money is spent trying to ‘rehabilitate’ them. Sometimes these efforts are successful. But all too often the boys go on become young adult addicts/alcoholics and/or criminals who end up in county jails or state prisons. The girls begin having babies before they are mature enough to do so successfully on their own. Thus, they and their young kids end up on welfare. It would be less costly to provide them with more individualized educational services when they are younger than to house them in jail!

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