Sunday, March 06, 2011

Crosscut Article Questions Philanthropists' Focus

A good article at Crosscut by Anthony B. Robinson about the role poverty plays in education and is it being considered by ed reformers. To whit:

Schools do a very good job with many kids who come prepared to learn. Does the big money behind education reform focus on schools' problems to the point of ignoring the societal issues of poverty that lie behind many of the challenges for schools?

He references an article that many of you have recommended and I add my voice to that chorus because it clearly lays out the issues around philanthropy and its power to sway the course public education takes. It is from the on-line magazine, Dissent, by Joanne Barkin called, "Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule our Schools." It should be required reading for every elected official who cares and/or has a role in public education.

From the Crosscut article:

One thing a good education teaches is to be skeptical of simple answers. Laying all blame for student failure (or credit for achievement) on schools, without looking at social context, strikes me as too simple an answer. Moreover, it may be easy to target schools and teachers, pushing choice and competitiveness and deregulation, while turning a blind eye to increased levels of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment.

In the world of education policy and reform this is hardly a new debate. Does responsibility for student achievement rest with schools or social conditions, on teachers or parents and families? The reasonable answer would be “both.” What goes on in the school is critical, but so too are the social conditions that impact the lives of students and their families.

But the constant hue and cry about public schools is so relentless that you wouldn’t imagine, though it is often the case, that many public schools are doing a good job, and that where they aren’t there are multiple factors to consider.

He references what Barkin's article highlights:

Barken argues two points. First, that the translation of “big dough” into major power and influence in public education by these foundations ought to concern us. They are, after all, neither elected nor accountable. Second, that claims for the efficacy of educational reforms advocated by the “big three” are dubious.

Educational reform movements, driven by the Big Three and advocated by Department of Education Secretary, Arne Duncan among others, focus almost entirely on schools and not on social conditions or poverty. In some ways, that makes sense. Focus on what is in your control, focus where you can have the most impact. Changing a school is certainly easier, and aguably more within the purview of education leaders, than changing a national economy.

He then comes to the crux of his question:

Do wealthy philanthropists and these private charitable foundations, which do have enormous influence on public education today, have a vested interest in overlooking larger social and economic questions and conditions? Do they have a vested interest in “reforms” that only look at one part of the equation? Are they likely to overlook evidence that, as Barken concludes, “The problem is not public schools; it is poverty."

Moreover, he asks the important question about why the focus (or blame) has to be on one group or reason than another. He asks, can't it be "both/and"? He also says that it shouldn't be wrong to ask if the focus of these foundations is too narrow and has too much sway when other answers could be out there.

I really like his ending:

Pursue accountability, use data intelligently, set high expectations for schools, and acknowledge that economic and family factors are also important. Pursue educational reform, but don’t turn it into an ideological movement that has The Truth, admits of no questions, and treats (as Barken claims) “philanthropists as royalty.”


wseadawg said...

Barken and Robinson are now officially my peeps. Or I'm theirs.

It is not, and never has been the philanthropy that I have objected to. It's the blind, "money is money, no matter where it comes from" passive allegiance and deference we give to philanthropic organizations and individuals who contribute, on average, about 1 to 2% of the entire school budget in any given year, and usually for something they want, not that anyone asked for. What about the other 98% of the community? Why do the big donors get all the attention while parents and families get the Heisman?

It's the disproportionality and the blind allegiance to money, stupid! IF fair representation were the name of the game, these folks could and would help our public schools without making our kids their lab rats and our school systems their playthings.

Bless Robinson and Barken for putting the poverty elephant back in the room. This is not an excuse to defend bad teachers. It's step one in helping them meet kids' needs.

ConcernedTeacher said...

Thanks. After a day spent reading about all the horrible educational policy legislation going on throughout the U.S. (for example, Utah just passed a bill making it illegal to use seniority as a factor in retention during RIF situations - how convenient to rid yourself of more expensive veteran teachers!), it was nice to have something positive to read. Despite the fact that most of it was kind of "duh!" for me, I appreciate the fact that it is written in a way that makes it accessible for the general public. I also appreciate the fact that he highlights (from the Barkin article) how the statistics change depending on the poverty rate. Gerald Bracey (RIP) used to tear into these test results and show how they were misused as bludgeons to hammer in the right-wing mantra that public schools suck. It's nice to see that some others are picking up where he left off. Given all of the factors we deal with (kids who are hungry, homeless, sick, on drugs, abused, neglected, etc.), it sometimes amazes me that we do as well as we do. There are many parts of the U.S. that more closely resemble a third world country - including vast stretches of our Indian reservations (like the Navajo and Hopi in Northern Arizona) - yet successful students and schools can still be found. A Navajo student I once tutored when I was an undergrad teacher ed major and she was in middle-school and high-school just e-mailed me last week to tell me that she is graduating in May. From college! And she's going to be a teacher.

The First Arnold said...

"They are, after all, neither elected nor accountable."

Ahhhh democracy at it's finest hour.

Anonymous said...

Melisa, thank you for the articles. I look forward to reading them in more detail soon. Joanna