NAEP, Dumb Experts & Smart Experts
The NAEP test results have been out for awhile, so there's been a fair amount of scuttlebutt about them during the last week. There are things in the results to give those who want to be hopeful some reasons to be hopeful, and for those who want to bash American education to bash it some more, but after eight years of No Child Left Behind, the bottom line seems to be that not a lot has changed. Surprise, surprise!
I happened to have CNN on as Jack Cafferty, one of that network's Bill O'Reilly wanna-bes, went on one of his rants. (Is anybody else sick of "angry white males" in telejournalism?) Jack is an expert on everything, of course, and he complained that after all the money we've spent on education, NAEP scores hadn't improved in forty years. Jack blamed the teachers unions, and he wants to start firing teachers. Jack is an idiot--at least on this issue.
Lately, however, I've been reading an "expert" who actually does seem to have a clue on educational issues--Malcolm Gladwell. One of the most important complaints about American education has to do with the achievement gap between upper and middle income and lower income kids. Critics have often used this to complain that American education isn't working. Well, here's a surprise. In his book, Outliers, Gladwell uses test scores to defend American education. He shows that lower-income kids keep up with middle and upper income kids during the school year, but they fall farther and farther behind during our long summer vacations. His conclusion: American schools work! Please pause while I faint.
Gladwell is also the first expert I've read who understands that the reason kids from other nations--Asian ones in particular--get a better education than American kids is that they try harder. In discussing the superior scores of Korean and Japanese students in math, Gladwell says, "We sometimes think being good at mathematics as an innate ability. You either have 'it' or you don't. But..it's not so much ability as attitude. You master mathematics if you are willing to try...Success is a function of persistence and doggedness." Gladwell points out that the problem is a cultural one. If we are going to improve education in America, we are going to have to address our culture regarding school.
Gladwell uses the KIPP Schools as an example where the mindset of students from the inner-cities, or their culture, has successfully been changed. He gives an example of a day in the life of a student named Marita:
I wake up at five-forty-five a.m. to get a head start. I brush my teeth, shower. I get some breakfast at school, if I am running late. Usually I get yelled at because I am taking too long. I meet my friend Diana and Steven at the bus stop, and we get the number one bus. I leave school at five p.m, and if I don't lollygag around, then I will get home around five-thirty. Then I say hi to my mom and really quickly start my homework. And if it's not a lot of homework that day, it will take me two to three hours, and I'll be done around nine p.m. Or if we have essays, then I will be done like ten p.m., or ten-thirty p.m.
Sometimes my mom makes me break for dinner. I tell her I want to go straight through, but she says I have to eat. So around eight, she makes me break for dinner for, like, a half-hour, and then I get back to work. Then usually after that, my mom wants to hear about school, but I have to make it quick because I have to get in bed by eleven p.m. So I get all my stuff ready, and then I get into bed. I tell her about the day and what happened, and by the time we are finished, she is on the brink of sleeping, so that's probably around eleven-fifteen. Then I go to sleep, and the next morning, we do it all over again.
Gladwell argues that Marita's trade-off of much of her childhood freedom for the opportunity to a promising future, especially when compared to the future of a typical disadvantaged child, is worth it. I can't argue with that, but I know how some people feel about KIPP, and I'm not proposing that we become KIPP. More important, I don't think we have to. In order to provide a first class education to American students, I don't think we have to force them to, as Gladwell says, have "the hours of a lawyer trying to make partner or of a medical resident." Nevertheless, while we don't have to go as far as KIPP, we should try to learn from them. They may take it a bit far, but I think we need to move in their direction. Screw around with merit pay if you want. Screw around with choice, standards, and blah, blah, blah, and we will continue to see little change. If we really want to improve American education, Gladwell is right. We are going to have to do something to change the mindset and culture of our students.