by Robert Pondiscio
May 12th, 2009
Back in my ink-stained wretch days, I sympathized with beat reporters whose noses would get out of joint when a “bigfoot” colleague would parachute into town and write a column uncomplicated by reporting or background knowledge. So I can’t help but wonder what the New York Times’ Paul Tough thinks of his colleague David Brooks’ column about the Harlem Children’s Zone.
Tough, as you probably know, wrote the book on the Harlem Children’s Zone. Literally. Whatever It Takes looks at Geoffrey Canada’s mission to change the lives of Harlem’s children by intervening in every moving part of their lives from schools to parenting. But Le Blogosphere is up in arms this week wondering how Brooks came to conclude ”the Harlem Children’s Zone results suggest the reformers are right” in arguing that school-based approaches alone can close the achievement gap. It’s a conclusion that’s hard to support based on even a passing familiarity with Tough’s book.
I don’t have a dog in the Broader, Bolder vs. Education Equality Project (“No Excuses”) fight, which represents the quintessential ed reform false dichotomy. Like many such debates, it seems rather obvious (and utterly uncontroversial) to suggest that we need to draw from both sides to get to a solution. But to conclude, as Brooks did, that HCZ proves the “no excuses” case makes one wonder if he even read Tough’s book. As Diane Ravitch notes “there are lessons for American education, but not necessarily the ones that Brooks points to.” Corey Bunje Bower at Thoughts on Education Policy calls Brooks’ conclusion ”flat out irresponsible.” Over at Public School Insights, the usually erudite and articulate Claus von Zastrow is driven to sputtering, “What??!?”
Did Brooks really just argue that the Harlem Children’s Zone’s success supports the schools alone approach championed by “reformers”? That’s like arguing that the Surgeon General’s reports discredit the link between smoking and cancer.
“Brooks joins a long line of national commentators who are turning important conversations about school improvement into a morality play pitting the “establishment” against the “reformers.” In the process, he is promoting false and damaging dichotomies between efforts to improve schools and efforts to offset social and economic disadvantages that contribute to achievement gaps,” Claus concludes.
Just so. But back to my reporter friends. It wouldn’t surprise them to hear a columnist wrote the story one way when their reporting led in a different direction. That’s just the nature of the beast. A columnist’s job is tell you what he thinks; reporters tell you what they found out. Brooks recommends Whatever It Takes in his column. It’s a great suggestion. He should really see what Tough found out.
Mea Culpa: Aaron Pallas did a terrific analysis of HCZ’ test results last week which I overlooked. Do have a look.
by Robert Pondiscio
May 12th, 2009
Children from troubled families perform “considerably worse” on standardized reading and mathematics tests and are much more likely to commit disciplinary infractions and be suspended than other students, according to a new study. Writing in Education Next, Scott Carrell of UC-Davis and the University of Pittsburgh’s Mark Hoekstra offer evidence that “a single disruptive student can indeed influence the academic progress made by an entire classroom of students.”
Carrell and Hoekstra, who are both economists, examined confidential student data from Florida’s Alachua County school district, consisting of observations of students in grades 3 through 5 over an eight-year period. The pair also had access to disciplinary records for every student in their sample, which they cross-referenced to domestic violence data from public records. What emerged was a compelling set of data that indicates children exposed to domestic violence have more disciplinary problems at school, underperform academically and have a negative effect on peers–resulting in lower test scores and increased disciplinary problems in others. In essence, a ”one bad apple” syndrome. Carrell and Hoekstra title their piece “Domino Effect.”
“A majority of parents and school officials believe that children who are troubled, whatever the cause, not only demonstrate poor academic performance and inappropriate behavior in school, but also adversely affect the learning opportunities for other children in the classroom,” observe Carrell and Hoekstra. The pair cite a Public Agenda survey which found that 85 percent of teachers and 73 percent of parents agreed that the “school experience of most students suffers at the expense of a few chronic offenders.” The study largely validates those concerns.
Our findings have important implications for both education and social policy. First, they provide strong evidence of the validity of the “bad apple” peer effects model, which hypothesizes that a single disruptive student can negatively affect the outcomes for all other students in the classroom. Second, our results suggest that policies that change a child’s exposure to classmates from troubled families will have important consequences for his educational outcomes. Finally, our results provide a more complete accounting of the social cost of family conflict. Any policies or interventions that help improve the family environment of the most troubled students may have larger benefits than previously anticipated.
Poll teachers in struggling schools, and I will wager a substantial amount that classroom disruption is identified consistently as the primary barrier to student achievement. Yet it is consistently glossed over or dismissed, typically attributed to a teacher’s lack of classroom management skills. I have long believed that the time on-task lost to disruption and behavior problems is almost certainly one of the under-discussed root causes of the achievement gap. This study does a great service by confirming what many teachers and parents have intuited for years: disruption matters and has a negative effect on all students.
School and classroom tone matter enormously–perhaps more than any other factor. Get it right and everything seems to work. Get it wrong and nothing does. This study holds out the promise of sparking a very important discussion about the rights of the individual in the classroom versus the rights of the community. It’s long overdue.
(Image via Digital Eargasm)