Saturday, October 04, 2014

By The Time You're Talking About Prison-Like Schools, Love Isn't Enough

Michael Gerson dips his toes into what he deems the "prison schools" of the inner cities, and their efforts to build character. Apparently one doesn't need educational credentials to run a good school for inner city kids. One simply needs a prison-like environment and a whole lotta love:
Students are urged to be “Ginn men.” It is an ideal with the strong imprint of a particular man, Ted Ginn, the high school football coach who was seized with the initial vision for the academy. While possessing few academic qualifications, Coach Ginn has a credential often lacking in prison-like, urban public schools: a passionate belief in the potential of at-risk children. “You can’t have people around young people who don’t love kids,” he says. “If you don’t have love, you don’t have nothing.” Love creates a child’s internal desire to meet external expectations.
Even as he recognizes that the theory of inculcating "character" into inner city schools is predicated upon jargon-laden language, Gerson laps it up:
But the basic idea is sound and should be familiar to anyone who has read cultural anthropology or changed diapers. From the very earliest age, children need one adult — preferably more — who believes in them utterly. And that belief is expressed in a series of social and moral expectations. (At Ginn, for example, the boys must learn to iron a dress shirt, a ritual reinforcement of the fact that there are rules for everyone.) The early connection between love and rules creates behaviors — sitting still, keeping your hands to yourself, focusing, respecting others, deferring gratification — that make the educational task possible.
The problem with Gerson's notion, in practice, is that even the most loving of school principals (wardens?) cannot give enough love to every student, and perhaps not even enough love to any student, to make them believe that somebody "believes in them utterly". Frankly, the very creation of the prison-like environment Gerson notes, then blissfully ignores, is a hallmark of the very deep mistrust these schools have for their students. In fairness to Gerson, the school he visits does offer "life coaches":
The most innovative part of the Ginn approach is the use of “life coaches” — one for every 25 boys — who are mentors from the community, embedded in classrooms and available 24 hours a day. “You learn everything you can about the child,” one life coach said, “if they have a single parent, if they need extra cereal in the morning, who is having a bad day. If you catch it early, you’ve changed the course of his day — and maybe not just his day. Who knows what might be his choice on that day?”
It's difficult for me to see, however, how a "life coach" of unknown qualification can effectively track and mentor twenty-five children around the clock, no matter how much love he has to share. Life coaches cannot make up for struggling homes, poor parental guidance, food uncertainty and dangerous neighborhoods.

Here's the biggest problem, as reported on a right-wing education blog: No matter how much these schools hope to teach character, there's no evidence that it works. Quoting a report analyzing KIPP schools, a highly structured network of inner city charter schools with strict, often extreme and even bizarre, behavior codes and rules:
[T]he KIPP children showed no advantage on any of the measures of character strengths. They weren’t more effortful or persistent. They didn’t have more favorable academic self-conceptions or stronger school engagement. They didn’t score higher than the comparison group in self-control. In fact, they were more likely to engage in “undesirable behavior,” including losing their temper, lying to and arguing with their parents, and giving teachers a hard time. They were more likely to get into trouble at school. Despite the program’s emphasis on character development, the KIPP students were no less likely to smoke, drink, get high, or break the law. Nor were their hopes for their educational futures any higher or their plans any more ambitious.
What KIPP offers is consistent with what other studies have found -- better academic performance due to the fact that its students spend more time in the classroom. The rest is window-dressing, even if well-intentioned, that creates the prison-like environment that would keep somebody like Gerson from ever dreaming of sending his own kids to one of their schools.

Gerson, stepping into the role of "the blind leading the blind", complains that the political parties don't understand the issues facing these kids.
Republicans tend to ignore the urgency of this cultural challenge. It is not enough to blame parents (who are often deeply disadvantaged) or to call on charities to fill the mentoring gap (since the scale of the need is too large for volunteerism).

Democrats tend to underestimate the complexity of the cultural challenge. This gap of adult commitment and involvement will not be filled simply by extending schooling downward by a year to cover 4-year-olds. Even the best early-childhood education programs seem to have fleeting or marginal effects unless they are followed (and preceded) by complementary efforts. Programs such as the Nurse-Family Partnership — in which nurses visit first-time, low-income mothers to provide information on nutrition and parenting — may be a more focused (and cost-effective) way to increase the school readiness of at-risk kids.
I was not aware that Democrats opposed educational programs for new mothers, or that they opposed nutrition education and programs for new mothers. I was not aware that Democrats thought that quality child care should not be offered, or even subsidized by the state, before the age of four.

At the end of the day, Gerson falls into standard tropes about inner city youth -- they just need to be taught discipline, even if in the form of meaningless symbol:
Education is the cumulative result of such choices. And Ginn provides a vivid expression of the educational task: Iron your shirt and get “right for a miracle.”
Do you think Gerson irons his own shirts, or do you think he uses a service -- and no matter what the answer, do you think it would tell you anything about his character? I'm quite certain that Gerson has worked with a large number of privileged men who have lived their entire life blissfully unaware of how the clothes they strew across the floor get picked up, laundered, and placed back into their drawers and closets... mom, spouse, maid, maybe elves or pixies....

One of the favorite studies of the people behind this form of character education is the marshmallow study -- a study that revealed a strong correlation between whether a child can resist the immediate reward of a single marshmallow in exchange for the promise that if they resist they will receive two, and future success. I've read that at some KIPP schools they even use "Resist the marshmallow" as a slogan. But I have read about a follow-up study by a graduate student, working at a homeless shelter, who found that the biggest predictor of a child's ability to resist the marshmallow was whether the person promising the greater reward was reliable. If that person broke an earlier promise to the child, children were far less likely to delay gratification. My formulation connects reasonably well with Gerson's notion that every child needs somebody "who believes in them utterly" -- in essence a trustworthy caregiver. The reason that character education fails in KIPP schools is that it comes too late, and in the wrong form.

Frankly, the best way to lift a population out of poverty is to make work available at a decent rate of pay. But barring that possibility, if you want to create the type of personality that is primed for success, you have to intervene at the family level long before a child reaches school, and when you identify a vulnerable child you need to do a lot more than have a nurse visit and provide nutritional education or parenting advice. By the time you get around to telling a vulnerable child, pushed into a "prison-like" school, that somebody utterly loves him (and, simultaneously, 24 of his classmates), you're too late.

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