All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


11 June 2011

The Challenge of the Application-Challenged Family

Julia Steiny, you may have heard, is writing at EducationNews.Org these days. Her inaugural column was a rumination on how things could be better if only people would just care about kids (presumably the way she does). I was rather put off by the self-righteous tone, but I thought to myself, "This is someone who's been at this for a while and has clearly thought about these issues; a first column can be allowed a little egocentric indulgence and biography. It's not like I'm never self-righteous, after all. Let's wait and see what she does next. She even kinda looks hot in a Cathy Siepp-sort of way, may she rest in peace."

Well, her second column is here. Overall, I'm unimpressed. But amidst confused arguments and some possibly bad ideas, there's a glimmer of what I think is a good idea.

Probably the biggest problem I have with her column is that it undermines itself. She uses that tired expression, "left behind", to talk about seriously troubled kids whose parents don't care enough to apply to charter schools.

For now, it’s fabulous that more lucky parents are as satisfied and engaged in their child’s learning as the private-school and affluent parents are.

* * * *

(But) an unintended consequence of the otherwise-terrific choice movement is that some of the toughest kids to educate are left behind in certain regular public schools – in increasingly high concentrations.

The worse-off kids are, we are to believe, finding themselves in an increasingly perilous position as the better-off kids leave, as the "concentration" of these toughest kids rises.

On this basis, she argues that all kids should share in the benefits of school choice:

But in the meantime, states need to look long and hard at their reform strategies. Hard-to-reach families must be integrated into the benefits of the choice movement.

But that seems a very odd argument to make, given that she acknowledges that the bad situation is bad precisely because of the presence of those who are being "left behind". We know that they are the proximate cause of the bad situation because as the "concentration" of these disengaged, unsupported, suffering kids increases, the schools are (she argues) getting worse. That's not to say the kids are to blame for the bad situation, merely that they are the proximate cause of it. (If you are confused as to what I mean, imagine that a terrorist puts a bomb in my suitcase and I carry it on the train. The bomb causes the crash, and I cause the crash, and the terrorist causes the crash, but really the terrorist is the only one to blame.)

Steiny assumes that the charters aren't, in and of themselves, academically superior schools. So what exactly are the benefits of school choice? Well, the assumed academic parity suggests that the primary benefit of the school choice movement is getting away from the kids with problems that stem from the fact that their families have problems that interfere with their ability to make school choices, the "application-challenged" families. (Her term, not mine.)

So how do we "share" those benefits? If the benefit of my train ticket is that it takes me far away from someone else, I can't "share" that benefit by getting them a train ticket, too. That destroys the benefit.

So this strand of Steiny's column makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. But, thankfully, that's not all she has to say. She also has some thoughts about how we can flat-out improve the lives of the application-challenged. (Yes, that's a little bit of mockery you hear in my writing when I'm using that term.)

One day, in a happier future, let’s hope that all families have so many good school options that every one of them makes active choices. Outreach programs help them choose.

Now, we've already established that the problem isn't a lack of choices. It's a lack of capable, motivated choosers. And good options don't make for motivated choosers, so the first sentence is rendered almost unintelligible: you can't possibly get enough good options to make everyone into an active, motivated chooser.

But the outreach idea isn't a bad one. Direct work with the families probably has a place in the grand scheme of things. I don't know how efficacious it will be: it's not as if there aren't tons of such programs already. You'd have to be a bit more invasive than normal, because these aren't the sorts of families that are going to seek out benefits.

But invasive, it seems, is exactly what Steiny has in mind.

And then, if a family fails to fill out an application or preference sheet, a red flag goes up, indicating possible domestic distress.

So if the parents don't get on board by demonstrating that they are engaged in their kids' education by filling out an application... we'll what? Put up a red flag? Then everyone can point and say, "Hey... it's the red flag! How pretty!"

I jest. Red flags are calls to action. And since we seem to be talking about the government here, we know that there's always going to be an iron fist hiding somewhere in the velvet glove.

Wait for it...

Wait for it...

Social services goes out to visit the home and gently offers help.

So if the outreach programs fail, we're going to have more outreach?

Of course, Steiny is either being naive or disingenuous; I suspect that she doesn't really mean "gently offers" at all, because that's presumably already been done through the outreach she calls for. But whether she means it or not, there's no "gentle" with social services. There's a threat to take kids away from their parents, pure and simple. That threat might be hidden behind smiles and brochures and applications and "monitoring visits" and all that, but that's what it comes down to in the end. Social services is the opposite of gentle.

Now, maybe that's what's really needed. Maybe not going to PTA meetings or failing to enter a charter lottery, or just not giving a crap, is a form of child abuse, and we should just take those kids away and put them in better, "application-ready" homes. I'm not a fan of that kind of policy, frankly. I support parental autonomy just as I support free speech, and that means I have to put up with a certain amount of behavior of which I do not approve. But it's not an inherently unreasonable position to take, and even though she's being mealy-mouthed about it, I can understand the sentiment.

I like Steiny's last idea the best, though she almost manages to make it unappealing:

Or if we’re going to concentrate the Dennys of this world into certain schools, they should be showered with help for what is essentially a special special-needs population, made more difficult by segregation.

First off, what a god-awful sentence. "They should get help for a population that is made more difficult." What the hell? But putting that aside, if I'm understanding her correctly, this is actually a pretty good idea. It's more or less what I advocated a few days ago. Why not have a special set of schools for dealing with kids who are hell-on-educators because their home lives are a disaster, the "intentional non-learners" as they're coming to be called?

But it's not that their situation is made more difficult by segregation. Their situation is made worse by the fact that there are a certain number of them, not by their distribution in the population. Once you reach a critical mass of such students (around 4 or so) in a class it doesn't matter how many good students you pack into the classroom with them. The class is shot. And the only way to avoid having that low of a concentration is to disperse them to schools all around the country (which, I suppose, is possible if Social Services is taking them out of their homes; why not send a few to rural Iowa?). But the way things are situated right now, in urban centers the natural concentration is already way past that stage, and the presence of the "application-ready" families isn't really helping that much (which is why they're eager to leave).

No, if she's right, then this segregation could be the key to making their situation better. And that, I think, is a fine idea. It will take more resources, and a certain amount of political will, but, well... I put that Latin phrase up as the motto for my blog for a reason.

Update: Minor stylistic/wording change to the second paragraph.

1 comment:

caroline said...

Great column -- totally on top of it. Julia Steiny is very confused.

Here's what I've suggested. OK, the logistics might be a little tough and it only works in a large district with multiple schools. These are all public schools -- take the charters and vouchers out of this hypothetical scenario.

Every student/family has a guaranteed default school and also guaranteed access to a school that every student is enrolled in by specific request. The process can be tweaked later to determine how many hoops the family must jump through as part of the specific request.

Voila! Except for the intentional non-learners in the default schools, and the teachers and staff who must cope with them, of course.

This is the scenario that would be the logical outcome of the charter movement anyway, except that it could be achieved without the bother of creating charter schools with different rules.