Friday, May 08, 2009

Cradle to Gra...duation Conservatism


David Brooks joins the list of columnists who are stunned to realize that if you keep kids in school longer, offer more academic support inside the school, and offer social support outside of the school, their grades improve. This, of course, becomes a magic recipe that should be replicated across the nation, well, no... across the inner cities of the nation. Brooks hints at what the school at issue offers:
Some experts, mostly surrounding the education establishment, argue that schools alone can’t produce big changes. The problems are in society, and you have to work on broader issues like economic inequality. Reformers, on the other hand, have argued that school-based approaches can produce big results. The Harlem Children’s Zone results suggest the reformers are right. The Promise Academy does provide health and psychological services, but it helps kids who aren’t even involved in the other programs the organization offers.
But the program offers a lot more than that:
In 1997, the agency began a network of programs for a 24-block area: the Harlem Children's Zone Project. In 2007, the Zone Project grew to almost 100 blocks and served 7,400 children and over 4,100 adults.

Over the years, the agency introduced several ground-breaking efforts: in 2000, The Baby College parenting workshops; in 2001, the Harlem Gems pre-school program; also in 2001, the HCZ Asthma Initiative, which teaches families to better manage the disease; in 2004, the Promise Academy, a high-quality public charter school; and in 2006, an obesity program to help children stay healthy.
In short, the program demonstrates that you can achieve remarkable things through early, intensive, and consistent intervention in a community. This isn't a model you can simply impose upon a random school, and expect similar results. The success of the program also implicates a related issue, sustainability. We've seen a lot of successful programs that help kids who have fallen behind catch up, perhaps even surpass their peers. But I'm not sure that we've ever seen such an intervention where academic gains hold once the support is removed. The Harlem Zone program seems to recognize that, extending its reach to the adults of its community, but I'm not sure that Brooks understands that this isn't something we can do in middle school and then forget as kids go on to high school.

After noting that Harlem Zone schools have their students participate in 1.5 to 2 times as much classroom instruction as other schools, Brooks states,
They also smash the normal bureaucratic strictures that bind leaders in regular schools. Promise Academy went through a tumultuous period as Canada searched for the right teachers. Nearly half of the teachers did not return for the 2005-2006 school year. A third didn’t return for the 2006-2007 year.
In the absence of union protections and with a huge increase in hours worked, the program has created an astonishing level of churn among its teachers. One solution to this would be to pay teachers a lot more money so that they might voluntarily agree to work perhaps twice as many classroom hours. Another might be to hire more teachers, so that the workload and pay remain the same, and you avoid the churn that comes from overworking and undercompensating teachers. Brooks seems to be proposing a third way: break the unions and give teachers no choice but to work the extra hours at the same level of pay.

I guess that's the vestige of conservatism he retains in endorsing this form of massive social intervention. The thing is, I suspect that if we take Brooks' approach, what we'll actually end up with is an even greater shortage of teachers willing to work in the inner cities, and an even smaller number who have the level of qualification and commitment necessary to make a program like this work.

1 comment:

  1. The two solutions you propose are quite sensible, but you are correct in observing that probably no one among powers that be would support them. What worries me about this movie towards KIPP- and HCZ-style charters and such is precisely what worries you--sustainability and stability. Teachers cannot keep up that kind of pace forever without a significant boost in pay or significant relief in terms of workload. But I suspect that Brooks, and many others, think that this can be done on the cheap via union-busting (or faux unions a la Green Dot). I don't think it can.

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