One of the important names in education that too many currently involved in making policy do not seem to know is Herbert Kohl. Those of us on the Progressive end of the educational spectrum know how important the insight he has offered are, and rare is the progressive thinker on education who has not read several of his books, most notably 36 Children and “I Won’t Learn from You:” and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment, the latter a reworking of a slightly earlier essay.
Beginning in Harlem in 1962, Kohl has taught every grade from Kindergarten to College, including being a visiting professor at Swarthmore College.
During a previous time of re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Kohl worked with the late Senator Paul Wellstone on building Opportunity to Learn ideas into the law (you can explore OTL at this Google search).
Recently Kohl sent out an email on A Race To Equity, the contents of which are publicly available quoted in another email on the Assessment Reform Network list archive. I want to share with you and explore the ideas Kohl presents.
I want to focus on a series of questions that Kohl suggests should be answered as part of how we evaluate if we are truly and honestly are going to address the real issues of school equity.
Let me begin as Kohl poses the issue:
When considering school failure, consideration must be given to the situation and circumstances under which children learn. Jonathan Kozolâs Savage Inequalities dramatically documents the lack of opportunity presented to many poor children. Taking off from the, we raised the issue of how to negate those inequalities. The question that droves this analysis was: Do all children have the same opportunities to learn? We were careful to avoid the question of poverty, family background, etc., because we wanted to make strictly educational arguments. We wanted to focus specifically on the conditions of schooling and make the opportunity to learn an equity issue.
Kohl suggests we need a series of measures of equity, and ofers a list some. Let me note that absent some equality of opportunity those in so-called failing schools are often disadvantaged even beyond the prior learning with which they arrive in our schools and classroom. As Kohl writes in the conclusion of the piece from which I am quoting,
My feeling is that progressives should advocate a “race to equity” – a
multibillion dollar initiative to bring some of the most impoverished schools up to the material and pedagogical conditions of the most effective public schools in the country.
I am going to list in bold each of the questions Kohl proposes and then offer some commentary of my own.
What are the facilities necessary to promote equitable learning? We should realize that the physical setting of school can make a difference in the effectiveness of instruction and learning. If nothing else, students can quickly ascertain that their learning is not important if the facilities in which they attend school are decrepit, falling apart, with leaking roofs, heating/ac that does not work, etc. Is there some minimal standard upon which we should be insisting as a precondition to our expectations for learning? We know that wealthy communities often have superb facilities, modern buildings, and the like, while poorer communities, in both urban and rural settings, often conduct classes in buildings as much as a century old, lacking adequate electrical systems for modern equipment as just one indication of how they lag.
What is an equitable ratio of students to teachers?Please note: teacher/student ration is not identical to class size, although it is closely related. It is possible to have a ratio that is too high yet keep class sizes manageable by having teachers responsible for more classes, perhaps removing a planning period and forcing all planning and collaboration and grading to take place outside of paid school hours. Of course, such an approach burns out and discourages teachers, which inevitably leads to other problems. Whether you want to think of the ratio, or of class sizes, recognize this: in our elite private schools those ratios are much smaller than is often the case in schools in economically distressed or isolated communities. In some of our wealthier communities, ratios and class sizes tilt more in the direction of what we see in elite private schools. There are some communities which have made a major commitment on these issues – I live in Arlington Virginia, where I taught in a middle school for one year in which my four sets of students ranged from 19 to 24. By contrast, I have taught most of my career in Prince George’s County MD, where in my current high school I have six sets of students with one class having 15 (it is a special program) and my other five ranging from 27 to 37. We know that there is research that supports the idea of smaller classes leading to more effective instruction, especially in elementary. Or if the elementary class has 30 students that there is a teacher aide to assist, or there are co-taught classes: in secondary one can co-teach language arts and social studies, having two teachers for perhaps 40-50 students.
What is the range and scope of a learning program that promotes equitable learning â this would include the arts, opportunity for athletics and cultural learning, advanced placement courses, science labs? Note that this is far beyond the sometimes exclusionary emphasis on reading and mathematics that was the result often seen in schools of lower socioeconomics because of the emphasis on test scores in those two domains under No Child Left Behind. I will acknowledge that Obama has spoken about broadening our understanding of what an education should include, and that the administration’s Blueprint allows schools/systems/states to measure performance in other subjects, but for the supposed bottom 5% / 5,000 schools the determination is still being made solely on reading and mathematics. If we narrow what a child experiences in school we do little than perpetuate or even aggravate the unequal status with which that child arrives in our schools. Somehow we need to remember that while literacy and numeracy are important, sometimes they are best learned in a broader context in which the student can experience a broader sense of learning and education. Similarly, we must be able to provide in every school the opportunity to challenge the gifted students that exist in every school, even those in our poorest or most isolated communities.
What are the credentials teachers are expected to have to produce excellence in learning? This question is going beyond the formal licensing today, that is, do you have a complete teaching credential? NCLB said that every teacher was supposed to be “highly qualified” but it was too easy to limit that to paperwork and coursework. We certainly need to have some standards of what we expect those to who we entrust the future of our children to bring to the classroom. What are those characteristics that we can see make a real difference? Can we establish some means of measuring them, so that we do not assume that grades and test scores of teacher candidates are the only measure? Here I note of my five student teachers the one with the highest grades and test scores was totally unable to connect with the students, whereas several with what some might consider mediocre evidence in testing and grades had already demonstrated a real interest and ability in finding ways of motivating and challenging a diverse group of students, both succeeded as student teachers and then later as teachers in our building.
What kind of wages and conditions of work contribute to educational opportunity for children? These are both important issues. Let’s address separately. First, if we want to attract and retain teachers we have to be willing to pay them a livable wage. Otherwise we will lose them to other careers, or else force them to work 2nd jobs in order to make ends meet. That is a minimum requirement. Conditions of work are equally important. That includes for many of us the ability to be flexible in meeting the needs of the students, having the support necessary to meet those needs, having the materials and equipment, being in an environment which is not overly punitive either to students or the adults serving those students, being in a setting where it is possible to work with the parents and the larger community for the success of the students. I will acknowledge that money is insufficient by itself to address the issues confronting our schools, but there is no doubt lack of money can undercut our best efforts. And please, do not simply compare the total amount spent per student as a means of undercutting that: yes, DC spends a lot per student, but much of that goes to mandated special education costs, to security, to a top-heavy administrative structure (including record keeping in excruciating detail of things easy to measure but which have not been shown to translate into better instruction), and not to improving instruction in the classroom.
What kinds of supplies and equipment must all school have access to (text books, computers, etc.)? IS it equitable that some school systems have a ratio of computers to students up to 10 times those in other schools? How does one teach laboratory science without labs, equipment, and supplies? What if a school lacks a gymnasium or safe athletic fields? Do some schools still lack chairs and desks for all students? What about a library, with books that students can take out? Remember, for some of our students there is little if any access to public libraries: in rural areas they are too far away, in some urban areas going to a public library – if the community still has one – might require crossing the territory of a hostile gang.
What kind of facilities should house an equitable learning environment for all children? The key word is EQUITABLE. That does not have to be identical. I addressed some of this in the beginning. It starts with the building itself. This is not merely the physical condition and age. It is also whether the building itself encourages or discourages learning. We have many models of building layout that can be considered as part of this.
What kind of standards and measures should be used to measure a school’s effectiveness as an equitable learning institution? Are the standards which we impose upon students and schools appropriate for where we begin? That is, is it appropriate to measure all against a uniform and often arbitrary level of performance rather than on the growth we are able to to generate in our students? How much are we willing to go beyond easy to score mass-produced tests? What measures beyond test scores are important indicators of whether that school is providing equity of opportunity for our students? Let me offer a couple of things one might consider. School lunch, attendance, opportunity of extra-curricular activities, opportunity for students to explore subjects in depth, multiple measures (which does not mean just multiple tests) of student learning – these are just a few things that come to my mind as I read this question. But also, how do we set standards? Here I think of the current effort for Common Core Standards that were being developed without the input of teachers or professional organizations of the content areas, but had lots of input from think tanks and testing organizations and certain groups arguing for what I would consider a narrow concept of “reform.” I might suggest that in order to determine what standards we should apply, we will first have to be willing to address an issue that still remains largely unanswered: what is the purpose of our providing for public schooling? What is the purpose of school? If we are willing to acquiesce in the sorting process and accept the idea that schooling is driven by a limited idea of economic competitiveness, then I suggest we will continue to be frustrated with the results, in large part because our students will be frustrated with what they experience in the classroom. Perhaps we should try talking to students, current and recently graduated, about what their experience has been, what they think they need, and why?
What role should parents and community organizations play to ensure equitable schools in their communities? Schools do not exist in isolation. In too many cases community support seems limited to honoring athletic teams. In some cases, we are fortunate that there is further support and honoring of academic “winners” – the scholarships one, robotics and Latin and Science and History competitions. Community organizations can provide so much more: guest speakers, field trips, supplemntal materials for classrooms, internship opportunities.
And parents: if we want their involvement do we provide an opportunity for them to participate? Is there even an active parent organization? What about providing opportunities for meeting with teachers and administrators on a schedule that works for parents? In many well-off communities, it is not difficult for a parent to adjust a work schedule for a parent conference. What if the parents both work two jobs, for which it represents a loss of income? What if the parents lack language skills, are we prepared to work with community associations to provide translators?
I have in this posting barely scratched the possibilities we could explore in the questions Kohl raises. And I am sure Kohl would tell us that these are only some of the questions we need to consider if we are going to make our schools more equitable.
Perhaps some do not care about school equity. There is a strand of thought among many in America which has no trouble with inequity, which is prepared to justify the increasing economic and social disparities in this nation. After all, we have seen some of that thinking in recent debates over health care reform.
I have experienced up close what the inequity in access to health care means. This weekend I again volunteered in dental triage at a Mission of Mercy seeking to bring basic dental care to people who normally go without. Health and nutrition and education are interrelated. Equity does not have to mean equal. But surely there should be some minimal levels beyond which as a society we understand we cannot allow some of our people to be trapped.
School is supposed to make a difference. Certainly we saw the explosion of the middle class in the decades after WWII in part because we opened up higher education through things like the GI Bill and various other programs, we opened up home ownership, we began to address some of the economic and racial inequity that was endemic in mid-20th century America.
I fear that we may have lost the belief that we can really provide opportunity for all. I worry that we are beginning, under the current economic pressures most of us are experiencing, to pull back from the concept that we have a responsibility for all of us. We may use language like “no child left behind” yet at the same time acquiesce as the educational opportunities for “other people’s children” to use the phrase made famous by Lisa Delpit are not really our concern.
Herbert Kohl has been one of the important voices on this, as has Jonathan Kozol, as have many who continue to labor within many schools which do not have the facilities, the larger community support, and thus struggle to provide equity of educational opportunity.
The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was a product of Lyndon John’s Great Society. Johnson had after college and before politics served as a school teacher in a poor economic community. He had seen first hand the lack of educational equity and its impact.
A competition inevitably has winners and losers, and thus inevitably leaves some behind, our telling them that in some way their education is not important enough. That is wrong.
I do not claim to have all the answers. I note that too often we are not asking all the right questions. Herbert Kohl offers some questions I think we need to consider.
What do you think?