Monday, June 1, 2009

Education reforms and middle-class values

Conventional education reforms have focused on increasing teacher and student attendance, reducing class size, raising teacher pay, and enrolling kids in early childhood education. It is also argued that without resolving more deeper social and economic problems, schools alone can’t produce big changes.

It is in this context that Harvard economists Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie have done a rigorous assessment of the students in the charter schools operated by the Harlem Children’s Zone and found enough proof that schools can produce "enormous" changes. They compared students in these schools to those in New York City as a whole and to comparable students who entered the lottery to get into the Harlem Children’s Zone schools, but weren’t selected, and found enormous gains in the former, to the extent of even eliminating the traditional black-white school achievement gap in various subjects.

David Brooks writing in an NYT op-ed, sees such charter schools (or "no excuse" schools as he calls them) as an emerging model for low-income students, and attributes their success to a combination of "paternalistic leadership, sufficient funding and a ferocious commitment to traditional, middle-class values". He writes,

"The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values... the no excuses schools pay meticulous attention to behavior and attitudes. They teach students how to look at the person who is talking, how to shake hands. These schools are academically rigorous and college-focused."

Brooks may be too sweeping in his judgment of charter schools, especially since the details of the Fryer-Dobbie study are not public. It is undeniable that the attributes mentioned by Brooks are a necessary condition for successful school outcomes. However, there are other, equally important details that contributes towards the success of these schools.

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