On Rothstein’s Response to Finn

Sunday, September 03, 2006
On Rothstein’s Response to Finn

[Richard Rothstein has written a response to Chester Finn’s August 17 posting in the Gadfly, “March of the Pessimists.”
Here follows directly the first portion of Rothstein’s response (a second portion to follow), interspersed in italics with my own running commentary on his text. For the complete text of his response, go to Rothstein.]

Chester Finn, in his August 17 “Gadfly” posting, responding to a New York Times article by Diana Jean Schemo and a Wall Street Journal essay by Charles Murray, expresses puzzlement that “the likes of Schemo and Murray” can’t see that good schools can overcome the disadvantages of poverty, racism, troubled families, crime-infested neighborhoods, and harmful peer influences.
These are complex issues, not elucidated by labeling these writers, as Mr. Finn does, ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘pessimist,’ or ‘defeatist.’ But I take Mr. Finn at his word that he genuinely does not understand why Schemo, Murray and others do not share his belief in the power of good schools to offset all other social and economic influences. I will attempt, as respectfully as I can, to explain why, for my part, I do not share his belief.

[The first, and perhaps most interesting, question that Rothstein raises is whether or not schools, good schools, have the power to “offset” all other social and economic influences. “Offset” may be a poor choice of words, as it’s not clear what the word means. Or what Rothstein may have meant in using that word. If it means “do away with” well the schools probably don’t have that power. But if it means “set off to the side,” that seems exactly what is in the power, and the mission of good schools. A good school will set aside one’s ignorance, one’s coarseness, one’s inarticulateness, and replace them in the foreground with articulateness, new found sensitivity, knowledge and other such positive attainments.
What Finn actually said was this: “Backward reeled my mind upon discovering that the New York Times’s liberal education writer Diana Jean Schemo and conservative icon Charles Murray share essentially the same defeatist view of education: that schools aren’t powerful enough instruments to boost poor kids’ achievement to an appreciably higher academic plane due to the many other forces (family, neighborhood, poverty, heredity, etc.) tugging them downward.” All he is saying, or implying, here is that schools can “boost achievement,” not that they can entirely offset “all other social and economic influences.”]

In short, given that, as Mr. Finn asserts, children’s time influenced by families and communities exceeds the time they are influenced by schools “by a multiple of four or five,” I am puzzled that he fails to agree that serious and successful efforts to substantially narrow the achievement gap must include social and economic policies to improve the circumstances of family and community life, as well as policies to improve the quality of schooling.

[Nowhere does Finn say that reform efforts may not include “social and economic policies to improve the circumstances of family and community life…”. In fact he clearly states that, “It’s obvious that schools can do lots more when the 91 percent—the time not in school–cooperates, when non-school influences (family, peer group, neighborhood, church, you name it) tug in the same direction as school.”
Also what Rothstein implies doesn’t necessarily follow from the fact that children spend much less time in school than without. One can speak Chinese during most of one’s waking hours, but in just a few hours a day given to an excellent English immersion program one can also become a fluent English speaker. It’s less the number of hours that one spends in school (although with improved student motivation and work habits and better teachers more time in school will prove valuable and profitable) than what the teacher and the student are doing with the time they have. Improvement in the student’s social (the removal of abusive, bullying, and coarse individuals in one’s environment) and the bettering of one’s economic condition (a good paying job, the arrival of a wealthy uncle, more government handouts) do not necessarily contribute to stronger achievement in the school. The latter will still depend primarily on the student himself, what he or she does with her time in class or without, and on the teacher, and also on classroom peers. How many children of the rich, how many children of kings and queens, have failed to learn even while experiencing the “best” of social and economic environments?]

First, let’s clarify some common imprecisions in the discussion. Mr. Finn asserts that good schools are “powerful enough instruments to boost poor kids’ achievement to an appreciably higher academic plane.” Nobody – not I, nor anyone with whom I am familiar – disagrees with this assertion. But what is commonly argued (and the notion that I dispute) is not that good schools can boost the achievement of disadvantaged children to “an appreciably higher plane” but rather that such schools can “close the achievement gap;” i.e., produce achievement from lower class children that is approximately equal to the achievement of middle class children.

[It may be “commonly argued,” but not by Finn in this piece, that good schools can “close the achievement gap.” In his piece Finn doesn’t even mention the “gap.” Whereas Rothstein in his rebuttal mentions the achievement gap a total of 9 times! He is at pains to point out that these schools cannot close the gap for all their students. But the proponents of so-called “no excuses” schools are not saying this, rather something much more restrained and modest, that good schools, and good teachers, and hard working students, can significantly raise achievement, if not closing the achievement gap in every case. Why isn’t this in itself remarkable enough? Why should these schools that achieve so much with their students be put down for not achieving more? Why isn’t it enough that these schools are doing much more than the schools from which their students have come? One wonders what’s really on Rothstein’s mind. Is it the biais of a point of view he brings with him from the Economic Policy Institute? that only government funded anti-poverty programs can ever significantly lessen and eventually close the achievement gap?]

More specifically, the claim is that if all disadvantaged children could attend such schools, their average achievement would not be appreciably different from the average achievement of middle class children – they would be as likely to attend good colleges, be no more likely to end up in prison or as teen parents, be as qualified for good-paying jobs, etc. Another way of thinking about the claim that good schools can “close the achievement gap” is that if all disadvantaged children attended good schools, and graduated, on average, with average middle class levels of achievement, the vast social inequalities that now pervade American society would disappear. Or, as New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it, if his New York City school reform program succeeded, “a lot of what Dr. Martin Luther King wanted to accomplish in our society will take care of itself.”

[It almost seems that Rothstein is here saying that children by themselves cannot change the world. I would say rather that it’s only by means of the children, stepping out of and over what ever it was they were born into, overcoming whatever obstacles they’ve had to face, that real progress can ever come about. But here again Rothstein is belaboring his point. For he would still speak of “all disadvantaged children.” And again, need I say it, Finn is not talking about all disadvantaged children. He is talking about what can be achieved by some disadvantaged children in the right school environment. Why fault him for not proving that all disadvantaged children will join the ranks of the “advantaged,” no more than all those who lose their welfare payments will eventually get a job and buy a home, pay income taxes. Should we not have done our welfare reform for those who could when there were those who couldn’t?
It seems to me that Rothstein’s argument is faulty. If I knew more about faulty arguments I’m sure I’d find the right name for his. Finn is most of all talking about what these “no excuses” schools have achieved, and about the validity and legitimacy of this achievement. He is not, certainly not in the brief commentary below which is the object of Rothstein’s response, trying to say that nothing more is needed, that even if battles have been won that the war is over. I’ts not. Again, why does Rothstein not stay with the principal question, which is can these schools of which Finn is speaking significantly improve the life chances of disadvantaged children. Rothstein concentrates on the relatively trivial point that these schools don’t do it for “all,” rather than giving them well deserved credit for their successess and then using his own persuasive powers to extend the model to other inner city schools that are failing, and failing their students.]

A puzzling aspect of Mr. Finn’s confidence that good schools can overcome all or most of the negative influences of deprived social and economic environments is that he himself, in other contexts, wisely endorses “value-added” as a preferred way to evaluate school quality, and as the appropriate way to compare average school-type (charter/non-charter, private/public) performance. Examining value-added trends makes sense only if you understand that social class greatly influences the level of student achievement. Granting that, on average, disadvantaged children (for example, those living in poverty) cannot reasonably be expected to achieve at the same level as middle class children (also, on average), a school serving disadvantaged children can be considered successful if it raises their achievement to levels significantly higher than it was previously, even if these higher levels remain, on average, considerably below those of typical middle class children. Advocacy of value-added comparisons as a preferred alternative to comparing raw achievement levels for accountability purposes makes sense because it recognizes that most children from poor families start their educations at a significant educational disadvantage to most middle class children, and that during their schooling, middle class children continue to enjoy extra-school educational benefits that children living in poverty do not possess. Advocacy of value-added comparisons makes no sense if you believe that good schools can fully overcome the social and economic influences that depress low-income children’s achievement.

[More of the same. Rothstein hammers away at the same point. “Overcome all of the negative influences…fully ovecome the social and economic influences…” Once again not the issue. Why doesn’t he talk about the main point that Finn is making, that schools, even given the negative social and economic influences, can make a significant difference in the lives of disadvantaged kids, differences that were not being made in the failing inner city schools from which these kids have come. Rothstein seems to have his “mantra,” that no single educational institution can overcome all the negative influences in the lives of the children attending that institution. Does that mean that one does nothing much while waiting for the government to change the social and economic conditions of the kids’ lives? Well, that’s what seems to be the rule within the inner city schools at the present time. Waiting for what? A new war on poverty? That is not going to come. And in any case we know the results of the last one. Does Rothstein?
Now a few comments about “value-added comparisons.” Why don’t value added trends make sense period? Why in order to make sense of them do you have to understand that social class greatly influences the level of student achievement”? Won’t everything about the student will more or less greatly influence the level of his achievement? Why is it, according to Rothstein, that “advocacy of value-added comparisons makes no sense if you believe that good schools can fully overcome the social and economic influences that depress low-income children’s achievement?” How does one’s belief about the relative effectiveness of good schools in impoverished inner cities at all affect the validity of our using value added comparisons? Am I missing something here?….]
To be continued.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s