Lincoln on slavery, Bush on war

Lincoln made the comment that "as a good thing slavery was strikingly peculiar in that it was the only good thing that no man ever seeks the good of for himself."
This tells us about Lincoln the man. He knew that for half the country slavery was a "good thing," and rather than condemning that half of the country as did the rabid abolitionists he thought a bit about that "good thing," and what kind of a good thing it was. For if it’s such a good thing why don’t we ever seek it for ourselves? Enough to make the slaveholders reflect on their slave holding? Makes me think of the Iraq War. Bush must have at one time, even if he doesn’t today, thought that it was a good thing.  And war, like slavery, is a good thing, but isn’t it always, again like slavery, a good thing for someone else? How many of our politicians go to war for themselves?About the same number of slaveholders who thought that slavery was such a good thing that they became slaves themselves.

Nukes and Elephants

Two news reports in today’s New York Times, one about elephants, "An Elephant Crack-up,  the cover story in the magazine, and the other, Monday morning’s, Columbus Day, big headline, "North Korea detonates nuclear device."

I asked myself which of these stories held the most significance for us humans, North Korea’s possession of the Bomb, or elephant packs being seriously deranged if not destroyed by the growing human encroachment on their living spaces?

My vote goes to the elephants, and here’s why. The possession of the bomb is, I believe, a civilizing force. It brings with it responsibility. Without it the nation, feeling left out, acts irresponsibly. With it the nation gains respect, although begrudgingly, and now, for its own prosperous future, quickly grasps that it has to act responsibly if it would realize that prosperity. And now as an equal. Strength to strength relationships, my strong arm facing off against your strong arm, are stabilizing forces. Strength to weakness relationships are highly unstable, and the constant source of quarrels leading to wars.
.
How we treat surviving elephant populations goes much more to what we are. Do we step back and alllow this other animal population to go on possessing a territory and home of its own, beyond our grasp, or do we make its territory just one more property in our own ever expanding possession and exploitation of all the earth’s habitable land, disregarding the claims of whatever other animal species were there before us?

"Goes much more to what we are." Are we one among many precious forms of animal and plant life onthe earth? Or are we, as the only valued life form, destined to allow only those other species, such as grasses and livestock, that are now entirely in our service, insuring our survival and continual expansion, to exist alongside of us? Elephants, other than promoting the sale of circus and zoo tickets, do nothing for us. Perhaps an ivory farm? But that’s probably not cost effective.

So if ever we take the steps needed to preserve the lives of elephants by allowoing them a habitat of their own we then surmount our own egotism and are better inhabitants of the earth ourselves as a result. This is happening, let’s hope not too slowly. For there are many among us who are are trying to give these wonderful creatures space. It’s not yet news that we have succeeded, but this is a much more important and on-going story than the nuclear device that was exploded in North Korea yesterday.

Breaking of Nations

Robert Cooper in the Preface to his book The Breaking of Nations, says this:
"The
worst times in European history were in the fourteenth century, during
and after the Hundred Years War, in the seventeenth century at the time
of the Thirty Years War, and in the first half of the twentieth
century. The twenty-first century may be worse than any of these."
Daily
we read things in the news that would support Cooper’s statement that
our century, the only century that my grandson will ever know directly,
may turn out to be worst of all.
For example, I take these three
items from today’s news from the Middle East, and South Asia, and I
haven’t even delved into the African continent where perhaps the
greatest slaughter of innocents is still going on. First, Baghdad bodies.
Hardly a day goes by without our hearing about them. On September 12th
at least 60 bodies were found throughout the city. All had been shot in
the head, had clear signs of torture, were blindfolded, bound, or
gagged. This number is above last month’s average body count of 50 or
more a day, but not as high as the national average of 100 a day year
to date. The second item concerns what I will call Muslim rage,
recalling the similar Muslim anger just one year ago over the Danish
cartoons. On the same day, September 12th, Muslim leaders in Britain,
France, and Germany, in Morocco, Pakistan, and Kuwait, in Gaza, Iraq,
Syria, and Indonesia, to mention just the first ones recognized by the
ever present scandal thirsty media, registered their protest at the
Pope’s words while speaking at Regensburg University in Bavaria. On
that occasion the Pope quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor as
saying, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you
will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread
by the sword the faith he preached.” The third item concerns the
country, Pakistan, perhaps the most ungovernable land in the world
today, a country held together by not much more than the name (and
perhaps the cricket team). The Pakistan government put a women’s rights bill
on hold, thereby caving in to the Islamists. Under Islamist law all sex
outside of marriage is criminalized. Furthermore if a rape victim fails
to present four male witnesses
to the rape, she herself may face punishment. According to a
Pakistanian Human Rights Commission a woman is raped every two hours
and gang-raped every eight hours in Pakistan, and we’re told that these
figures are probably an under-estimation. Now we learn that a
government reform measure that would end these practices has been
stopped.
I don’t mean to single out the Muslims by my comments.
There is certainly ample evidence of man’s cruelty to man among other
peoples and religions. But what I find abhorrent is that while the
bodies are piling up in Iraq, a Muslim country, and while in Pakistan
also a Muslim country, men are raping women with impunity, the Muslim
leaders’ rage is directed only at the words of a Pope, words that have
hurt no one (and would probably have passed unnoticed if the “leaders”
had kept silent), words that left no bodies, no rape victims. Why is
this so? Would these “leaders” perhaps be seeking to distract the
world’s attention from the horrors that their co-religionists, in the
name of their Prophet and their religion, are raining down on their
probably countless innocent victims?

Why Is It…

Why is it that in spite of Darwin, in spite of the common cellular origin of all life on our planet, we go on thinking of "history" as that of man’s brief time on the earth, a mere 10,000 years or so? Why hasn’t "history" become the history of life on the earth and taken its rightful place in our schools? Are we better off, more civilized, more capable of furthering our civilization if we can recount the battles, say, of the American Civil War, and know nothing about, the Miocene period when large numbers of apes, including probably our own blood relatives, roamed the plains of eastern Europe and the near East? Who is more apt to respect human life, the one who can recount what happened at Shiloh, Tennessee, during the first week of April, 1862, or the one who knows that during the Miocene Epoch, roughly 15 million years ago, as many  as 100 species of apes roamed throughout the Old World, including not unlikely human ancestors such as Dryopithecus in Europe and Sivapithecus in Asia?
Furthermore we’re told (A Lesson About History’s Lessons) that kids now a days are not even learning man’s recent history in the schools. "Each of us who teaches history has been reminded repeatedly in recent years about the "historical illiteracy" of our nation’s youth. The Bradley Commission, Diane Ravitch, the evening news, even chance acquaintances tell us that the ‘typical’ American teenager cannot place the Civil War in the correct decade (or perhaps even the correct half century). That same generic seventeen-year-old, we are told, does not know the purpose of Jim Crow legislation, nor recognize the contribution of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in ending that chapter in our history. He or she does not know that England colonized North America’s Atlantic coast, and is unaware that Spain’s imperial arm extended into the American Southwest."
These comments, of which there are no end, never include mention of the much greater "hole" in kids’ knowledge of the history of life on earth. Of that much earlier history, which most certainly tells us much more about ourselves than, say, the Battle of Shiloh, by in large nothing is known by our school children, with only one exception, the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods when the dinosaurs, then terrible lizards, but now children’s playthings, ruled. So instead of teaching our children the history of life, the life that we share with all living creatures, we teach a few favored periods of history, for young children times of the dinosaurs, for older children, perhaps, the time of the Greeks and the Romans, a bit of the so-called Middle Ages, and then in great detail the modern period, primarily one of battles and wars, of men killing one another and in most instances for no good reason. Wouldn’t our children be better served to learn the history of plate tectonics, and the creation of mountains as plates crashed together, the rise of homo sapiens and how we came to be human?
It was George Santayana http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Santayana philosopher, essayist, poet, novelist, and lifelong Spanish citizen, who said that, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Now this statement is often used by history teachers, and even more often perhaps by politicians, to stress the importance of the knowledge of history. But here also they are only talking about man’s most recent history, again that of one or two thousand years. Furthermore whereas knowledge of Neville Chamberlain’s "appeasement" policy ought to have prevented the subsequent Yalta give-away of Eastern Europe, it didn’t. Nor did knowledge of the Vietnamese War prevent our current war in Iraq from taking place. So that one might just as well say that those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
But if by "past" we mean the history of past life on the earth the statement is nonsense. Whether we "remember" it or not that life will not be repeated. The dinosaurs are gone forever, as is Pangaea, as is the wooly mammoth. Rather to remember this past is to realize how precious life is. And that’s why this past ought to be taught in the schools. Too often remembering our most recent past, which has been one of wars and the slaughter of millions, seems to make us perpetrators of more of the same. Witness the predominance in our lives of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-like groups, and the ascendancy of the military industrial complexes within our most developed nations. Knowledge of our recent, tragic past has done nothing to prevent this from coming about, whereas knowledge and understanding of life’s history might have.

Condemned to Repeat It

Why is it that in spite of Darwin, in spite of the common cellular
origin of all life on our planet, we go on thinking of “history” as
that of man’s brief time on the earth, a mere 50,000 years or so? Why
hasn’t “history” become the history of life on the earth and taken its
rightful place in our schools? Are we better off, more civilized, more
capable of furthering our civilization if we can recount the battles,
say, of the American Civil War, and know nothing about, the Miocene
period when large numbers of apes, including probably our own blood
relatives, roamed the plains of eastern Europe and the near East? Who
is more apt to respect human life, the one who can recount what
happened at Shiloh, Tennessee, during the first week of April, 1862, or
the one who knows that during the Miocene Epoch, roughly 15 million
years ago, as many as 100 species of apes roamed throughout the Old
World, including not unlikely human ancestors such as Dryopithecus in
Europe and Sivapithecus in Asia?
Furthermore we’re told (A Lesson About History’s Lessons)
that kids now a days are not even learning man’s recent history in the
schools. “Each of us who teaches history has been reminded repeatedly
in recent years about the “historical illiteracy” of our nation’s
youth. The Bradley Commission, Diane Ravitch, the evening news, even
chance acquaintances tell us that the ‘typical’ American teenager
cannot place the Civil War in the correct decade (or perhaps even the
correct half century). That same generic seventeen-year-old, we are
told, does not know the purpose of Jim Crow legislation, nor recognize
the contribution of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in ending that
chapter in our history. He or she does not know that England colonized
North America’s Atlantic coast, and is unaware that Spain’s imperial
arm extended into the American Southwest.”
But these corrective
comments, of which there are no end, never include mention of the much
greater “hole” in kids’ knowledge of the history of life on earth. Of
that much earlier history, which most certainly tells us much more
about ourselves than, say, the Battle of Shiloh, by in large nothing is
known by our school children, with only one exception, the Jurassic and
Cretaceous Periods hundreds of millions of years ago when the
dinosaurs, then terrible lizards, but now children’s playthings, ruled.
So instead of teaching our children the history of life, the life that
we share with all living creatures, we teach a few favored periods of
history, for young children times of the ancient Egyptians and, the
American West, for older children, perhaps, the times of the Greeks and
the Romans, a bit of the so-called Middle Ages, the founding of our
country, and then in great detail the modern period, which is primarily
one of battles and wars, of men killing one another and in most
instances for no good reason. Wouldn’t our children be better served to
learn the history, say, of the movement of the earth’s crust, and the
creation of the Himmalayas as the plates crashed together, the first
appearance of homo sapiens in Afirca and how he came to people the
earth?
It was George Santayana
philosopher, essayist, poet, novelist, and lifelong Spanish citizen,
who said that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to
repeat it.” Now this statement is often used by history teachers, and
even more often perhaps by politicians, to stress the importance of the
knowledge of history. But here also they are only talking about man’s
most recent history, again that of a few thousand years at most.
Furthermore does knowing the past enable us to avoid repeating it?
Shouldn’t the knowledge of Neville Chamberlain’s “appeasement” policy
have prevented the subsequent Yalta give-away of Eastern Europe? It
didn’t of course. Nor did knowledge of the Vietnamese War prevent our
current war in Iraq from taking place. So that one might just as well
say that those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
But
if by “past” we mean the history of past life on the earth the
statement then becomes nonsense. Whether we “remember” it or not that
life will not be repeated. The dinosaurs are gone forever, as is
Pangaea, as is the wooly mammoth. Rather to remember this past is to
realize how precious life is. And that’s why this past ought to be
taught in the schools. Too often remembering our most recent past,
which has been one of wars and the slaughter of millions, seems to make
us perpetrators of more of the same. Witness the predominance in our
lives of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-like groups, and the ascendancy of the
military industrial complexes within our most developed nations.
Knowledge of our recent, tragic past has done nothing to prevent all
this from coming about, whereas knowledge and understanding of life’s
history, of the relatedness of all life’s forms, might have.

Government, Mankind’s greatest invention?

James Buchanan says that "the loss of faith in the socialist dream has
not, and probably will not, restore faith in laissez-faire. But what
are the effective alternatives?"
That gets you thinking. James
Buchanan was a Nobelprize winning economist, and economists, I know,
love to talk about the "prisoner’s dilemma." I’ve never really
understood the significance of this tale. For don’t we always know what
the prisoner will do? For whom is it a dilemma? In fact why do the
economists make so much of this? Very few in the situation described
would be facing a dilemma. Most would simply "defect," or betray the
other, knowing that from that action they had the most to gain. In any
case that explains the "loss of faith in the socialist dream," that’s
why socialism didn’t work, and will never work. For self-interest is
still the single greatest motivating force in the world. And that’s
why, in spite of its obvious imperfections, the free market does work,
more or less, because it depends on that self-interest. And the "more
or less" explains why the failure of socialism doesn’t completely
restore our faith in laissea-faire. Self-interest alone is not good
enough.
Wouldn’t the situation where there is some government, that
is our own situation, be an "effective alternative?" For isn’t the
proper role of government to tame and temper people’s self-interest,
still the dominant motivating force in the lives of human beings, and
thereby make up for the imperfections of the free market by doing so?
Why would anyone, having experienced his or her own excesses, and
weaknesses, ever think that we could live productively and profitably
with our neighbors without a government "regulator" of some sort?
Why,
it now seems to me that government may very well be the single greatest
creation of mankind.* If you don’t believe that you need only to look
back at man when there wasn’t any government, although that’s not an
easy thing to do, given that early man left almost no traces of his
passage on earth other than his bones and some paintings on the walls
of caves. But is there anyone among us, even any diehard
anti-government libertarian/anarchist who would want to turn the clock
back 10,000 years or more ago, before the first bits of our history,
before the first governments? I don’t think so.
And today, what we
see happening in Iraq is no government, and that’s why even a bad
government, such as that of Mao, Stalin, or Saddam, did and still does
have its adherents and defenders. Why can’t our leaders understand
this, and not be so quick to overthrow a bad government without having
a good one waiting in the wings to take its place?

*“Nothing is more certain
that the indispensable necessity of government; and it is equally
undeniable that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must
cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with
requisite power.” (John Jay, in Federalist 2,)

Note to Michael Goldstein

   

   

   
      

Michael
Goldstein is the founder and CEO of the MATCH Commonwealth Charter
School in Boston. I wrote this note in response to his comment about my
Rothstein comment in an earlier post:
Dear Michael,
Well yes,  Kevin did say, in a lot fewer words, what I was trying to say.
Oh
well… Do you find that to be true, also, Michael, that most of what
you are thinking and perhaps finally geting around to writing, has
already been thought, said and written, and probably a good many times?
This
weekend I read an excellent article, from the Public Interest, from
Winter, 1966, by Christopher Jencks, Is the Public School Obsolete? ( a
question he would never phrase in that manner today, decidedly
incorrect).
I’ve also been reading (again) Diane Ravitch
on the history of the "public" school and on education and democracy. I
find she agrees with me (or rather I agree with her on a lot of
subjects). In particular when she says this about Dewey, OK, not new,
but it’s what I’ve always thought, and has been my problem with the man
each time I’ve sat down to read him, especially his Democracy and Education, "Dewey left problems in hls wake, caused in no small part by the obscurity of his prose."
Let me steer you to these observations by Ravitch, taken from her:  American Traditions of Schooling.
What follows is the last page or two of that essay. I agree with her
statement: "What does seem likely is that the public will not
indefinitely support schools in which children do not learn the skills
and knowledge that they require for participation in our society." How
do you read this? A radical change in the structure of our public
schooling is almost upon us? With the advent of the charter schools
some 15 years ago it did seem so. I’m less hopeful in that respect
today.
What do you think?
Finally this weekend I learned for the
first time that Ravitch is a great admirer of Robert Hutchins, and I
was too, especially before I took a teaching job at St. Johns College
in Annapolis in 1963, a decision based in some part on what Hutchins
had said. And what was that? Well, this sort of thing:
"Perhaps the
greatest idea that America has given the world," said Hutchins, "is the
idea of education for all. The world is entitled to know whether this
idea means that everybody can be educated, or only that everybody must
go to school." At St. Johns we believed that we knew what it meant to
be an educated man or woman.
And Michael, aren’t we still grappling
with this idea of education for all? You at MATCH, and I with my
Foundation work? It seems to me that we haven’t yet convinced ourselves
that "everyone can be educated," meaning by that, benefit from the
liberal education of which Hutchins is speaking… although for a long
time now we have legislated that everyone must go to school. So the
meaning of "education for all" is still in need of clarification. How
about taking a stab at it?

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.

KIPP or Knowledge is Power

The most common criticism leveled against the successful charter schools, including the Massachusetts network of "no excuses" schools, KIPP, and Achievement First schools, as well as a number of others, is that their impoverished, minority students at the start of their new school careers test out a bit higher than their peers remaining in the district schools, and even more significant they are said to have parents who are motivated to seek out the best possible school experience for their children. And that’s not fair! These critics pretend that the success of these charters is not meaningful because it simply follows from having found (selected) better students and more motivated parents to begin with. Who couldn’t do as well, they imply, given this above average student body?
This is the criticism that Richard Rothstein levels against the KIPP Schools in the book, The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement. Rothstein, a lecturer at Columbia University and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, writes extensively about education and his writings most often, while admitting the existence of failed inner city schools, do not so much fault the schools themselves as the societal problems (poverty, inadequate health care, abusive family situations etc.) that the kids bring with them into the schools. The fault, dear Reader, lies not so much in the schools and students as in the communities where the kids live and where these "essential services" are sorely lacking. Now when the KIPP School takes these kids without essential services and brings their reading, writing, and math skills up to grade level or above, and the district school serving the very same population fails to do so, who is to blame and who is to be praised? Well we have already learned from reading Rothstein that the schools are not to be blamed when they fail, and when they succeed, as in the case of KIPP, are not to be praised because these kids were not, in spite of appearances, enough like the kids they left behind in order to justify the comparison. Their overall test scores were higher and their parents were, what, better parents? You don’t praise the schools whose kids have better parents.
So, what are we to make of all this? There are those, many of those at the Economic Policy Institute, who cry foul whenever people succeed without having begun the race from a level playing field. First make everybody the same, equal, and only then take the next step. In the instance of charter and district schools first make sure that the student bodies are exactly the same and only then arrive at any conclusions regarding the outcomes.
Well this will never happen. To change the outcomes the students, as well as the teachers, parents and the schools themselves, must also change. So it’s true as Rothstein et al. say. At the very beginning the charter school students are different. But the charter school requirements, what the charter school is, make them different. And if you want different outcomes this always has to be the case. You cannot take the students and the parents as they are, and leave them as they are and expect to make important changes in their lives. Inner city schools have been doing just this for generations and they have failed to raise the achievement levels of their students. Tell the students they have to work harder, and tell the parents they have to care about their children’s education, and do that from the very beginning. That’s what the KIPP Schools do, and that’s why their students are different. For that Richard Rothstein ought not to have blamed, but to have praised the founders and leaders of these schools.

Required Curriculum For All?

National boards and commissions have always recommended a required curriculum for all students, the sort of thing that is common in most every other Western democracy and Japan, probably China too. In this country most local school authorities and the people themselves, to the extent they have involved themselves in these matters, have always resisted one K-12 school curriculum for the entire nation. Why? Why is it somehow important that what is to be learned in school be decided by the local school authorities, the school Board, the school superintendent, and in some instances the parents and teachers, and not by the nation? Is it freedom’s last gasp before a steady, undiminishing onslaught of big government? In this case the battle lines are not the usual ones between Left and Right. The political Center is generally sympathetic to national norms but their voice of reason is usually not heard because the opposing voices coming from Left and Right are so much louder.

I think that the sharp disagreement over a national curriculum, and national standards as well, exists in our country, and not, say, in England, France, and Germany, because from the very beginning we have placed a much heavier burden on our schools than have these countries. The school in France is most of all meant to make children literate and to that end a single national curriculum could be and was readily adopted. Schools in this country, however, have always been meant, and probably more so today even than in the past, to do much more than simply teach literacy. We would have our schools make knowledgeable and well informed, but also good and caring adults of our children, and there is little agreement how all that, and probably more still, is best done. Indeed, there is much mistrust of the central authority when it comes to how our children may best learn the difference between right and wrong. And there is no less distrust of, no less disagreement with the national authority in regard to what subject matters ought to make up the curriculum. In this country schools have meant all sorts of things to all sorts of people, and to accept a national curriculum might mean for the local community the loss of the particularities of their school, that specialness, whatever those things were that make the school theirs, and theirs alone. A National curriculum along with national standards would bring with their intrusion into the local community a national set of norms and values, thereby even further diminishing the importance of the local community in the lives of its children. Even further because popular and national culture has already done so much in that regard.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité