Commitment to classroom
Apr. 7, 2006
As education reforms are argued left and right, a new study adds some
Republic columnist Robert Robb
In the education reform debate, an unacknowledged reality is that the favored
nostrums of both the left and the right hold out only modest promise for the
nation's most serious challenge: improving the educational achievement of
minority and low-income students.
The right favors reforms that give students and parents more choices, such as
charter schools and vouchers to attend private schools.
There are those who dispute the gains from such reforms, but they are losing the
argument. The evidence mounts that school-choice reforms improve academic
performance not only among choice students but also among those who remain in
traditional schools that face choice competition. The gains, however, are
modest, single-digit improvements in test scores. That's meaningful and
worthwhile, but not enough for a population that chronically lags 20 to 30
percentage points behind national norms.
Moreover, there are two limitations to choice reforms rarely acknowledged by
their advocates. By definition, students attending choice schools have parents
who care enough about their education to research and make a decision about the
school they attend. Having a parent who cares about education is an important
advantage, making it difficult to generalize about gains from choice reforms.
The second limitation is that, even where choice is made generously available,
the overwhelming majority of students remain in traditional schools. And the
gains for such children in schools facing choice competition are, thus far, very
The choice reform agenda is best seen as educational triage: allowing students
who want to learn, or have parents who want them to learn, to find the most
productive learning environment for them.
That's highly valuable. But it's unlikely to change much the educational reality
for most minority and low-income kids.
The favored nostrum of the left is more money to fund smaller class sizes and
The evidence here is bitterly disputed. But even among those who say that such
things improve student achievement, the claim is also modest - in the same realm
as the gains claimed by advocates of choice.
Making meaningful improvements in class sizes and teacher pay, however, is
enormously expensive for what, thus far, seems to be at best marginal
improvements in student achievement.
There have been public schools that have produced student achievement among
minority and low-income kids at or above national norms. But even here the news
has been somewhat disheartening.
These schools usually feature principals given unusual authority over budgets,
personnel and curriculum. Many are, indeed, charter schools. And they often have
teachers who do extraordinary things, such as making home visits.
Institutionalizing the extraordinary is difficult.
A new study by the Center for the Future of Arizona and the Morrison Institute,
"Beating the Odds," offers hope that broad and significant improvements in
existing traditional schools are possible.
The study identifies Arizona schools with mostly Latino and low-income pupils
that have student achievement at or above the state average. It then matched
these high-achieving schools with low-achieving ones with similar demographic
and geographic characteristics to identify differences in approach.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne recently looked at Arizona
schools with at least 200 English-learners in 2003 to see how well those
students did on the state achievement test two years later. The range was
extraordinarily wide: from a high of 84 percent passing to a low of 9 percent.
According to "Beating the Odds," schools that succeed with Latino and low-income
students do have strong principals, but not all of them have extraordinary
authority. The key seems to be a commitment to frequent assessment through
objective testing, far more frequent than the state requires, and individualized
attention focused on individual student deficiencies.
Individualized instruction in a class of 20 or more students is difficult for a
teacher. But it doesn't necessarily require the extraordinary.
Only 12 Arizona schools made it through the rigorous filter established by the
researchers to ensure that the level of student achievement wasn't a fluke but a
sustained phenomenon. However, the encouraging thing was that what these 12
schools are doing can be replicated elsewhere.
The implication of "Beating the Odds" is profound. It means that broad and
significant improvements in student achievement among minority and low-income
students may be possible within the confines of the existing traditional school
structure and resources.
That doesn't mean that reforms aren't important and useful. It simply means that
improving student achievement doesn't need to wait for them.
This also suggests that the current debate over English-learner funding taking
place in the Legislature and the courts may be a sideshow.
The real arena is inside individual classrooms and the interaction between
individual teachers and individual students. And the key ingredients to success
- leadership, focus, discipline and methodology - are already available to those
with the commitment to muster them.
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-8472. His column
appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Read his blog at email@example.com.