We read in today’s Los Angeles Times these words of Andy Warhaftig, an English teacher in that city:
“This is a crucial time for the district. Debates rage over the mandates of No Child Left Behind and how much testing and teaching-to-tests we should do. Charter schools — some good, some bad — are siphoning off students and resources. High schools are subdividing into Small Learning Communities, a model that’s produced mixed results elsewhere, without adequate planning or funding. Most students don’t pass Algebra I the first time, yet Algebra II will become a graduation requirement in a few years, likely increasing the already abysmal dropout rate.”
About how many inner city school districts might we have said the same thing? Probably all of them. For these are issues confronting every inner city school district in the nation. And up until now no one seems to have the answers.
The irony is that these and other issues have arisen from what were supposed to be the answers to earlier issues or problems, NCLB (the answer to low minority achievement), Charter Schools (to failing district schools), Small Learning Communities (to huge, impersonal middle and high school learning environments), Algebra II (to low expectations, when no algebra at all, or algebra I was all that poor and minority students might expect to encounter in high school).
Why have what were supposed to be the solutions to the earlier problems become the new problems? Perhaps because we were afraid to take the big steps, to make the really fundamental changes, with the result that our timid and tentative steps were (and are) never substantial enough to bring about real reform.
And we go on in this fashion, bungling ahead with our hesitant reform efforts, really going nowhere at all. (see Tyack, David, and Cuban, Larry. Tinkering Toward Utopia: a century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995)
Take the longer school day as a case in point, a current and popular reform effort. One can agree with these reformers that children, especially at risk kids from poor and minority families, need to have more supervised hours in school during the day.
So what might we do to bring this about? We first need to persuade the principal and the teachers that such is vital to raising student achievement. Then we need to persuade the state legislators, or other funding sources, to put up a few million dollars to lengthen by a few hours the school day in perhaps a dozen now “failing” elementary and middle schools throughout the state.
And we may very well bring this about. In Massachusetts it has already been done. But our goal is, of course, much more than this. We want to extend the extended day to all struggling elementary and middle schools throughout the state, that which represents a generation-long project, at least, given the additional monies that would be needed. And there’s probably not much chance that our money sources would stay with us throughout the reform effort, leading to another failed reform.
Furthermore, even if the additional monies could be found, there is no hard evidence that the additional 2 or 3 hours in school, while probably beneficial, especially in as much as some of the extracurricular activities eliminated by NCLB would be reinstated, —there is no evidence that the extra time in school would do much to raise the children’s academic achievement in any significant fashion.
There is another irony here in that the model of a much longer school day, one that might have worked, is out there, currently in place. The model exists among all those poor and otherwise disadvantaged middle school children admitted to elite private schools where the school day is not just a few hours longer but the full 24 hour day long.
And the model exists in what I call “nativity” or “epiphany” schools, those few Massachusetts church connected private schools whose student bodies are all poor, severely disadvantaged middle school aged kids who are given full scholarships and are carefully supervised throughout most of their waking hours, only going home to sleep, and if they have one, to spend a few moments with their single parent care giver.
These two models work well for the kids. The kids are clearly achieving, both while in school and later in the colleges that most of them will attend. Why? Because these models do not represent incremental and therefore insufficient reform efforts, but are instead complete changes in children’s lives, revolutions if you like of what the kids’ lives had been up until then.
But of course they are costly and so far we prefer, or are obliged, to spend our wealth on defense and entitlements, and comfortable security for our old, but not for providing rich opportunities for our young.
What would a real reform of this nature cost? Take the present total of some 50 million students enrolled in our nation’s public schools. Assume that somewhere between a third and a fourth of them, about 15 million, would qualify for full tuition support in the sort of school I mention above.
At a per pupil cost of $25,000 (which I admit, may be low—the full cost to the Academy of a single student at Phillip’s Exeter is nearly $65,000) this would mean an annual budget amount of $375 billion, significantly less than the cost of Social Security or defense, and while a bit less than Medicare a bit more than Medicaid, welfare, and the interest on the national debt.
But this money would be money for prevention. By that I mean that such expenditures in the present would lower entitlement and other social costs in the future. We would end up paying significantly less for the costs to society of failed lives because there would be many fewer of the latter.
Unlike social security, unlike the armament industry whose costs will continue to grow, unless something else is fundamentally altered in our society, these full day tuition costs would be made up in good part from no longer needed portions of Medicare, unemployment and welfare, education and training costs.
Is it lack of vision, imagination, courage that keeps us from undertaking real educational reform? Is it something else? Must we always wait for things to happen to us, rather than making things happen?