Tapu Misa: Still searching for right way to help poor kids

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The Government's National Standards, ropey as they are, show what educators have been saying all along: that poor achievement is strongly linked to being poor. But since we knew that already, the question is: what now?

How will National Standards help us close the achievement gap, and drive that "outbreak of student achievement" that Education Minister Hekia Parata seems to think will spontaneously occur now that the unmoderated non-standard "standards" have seen the light of day?

It's not at all clear, though Parata has told the Dominion Post that the standards aim to somehow raise "teacher capability in the classroom". Which seems to mean they'll be used to measure teacher performance. Because that will solve everything.

So far, so predictable.

To understand just how predictable a path we're on, it's instructive to read American education writer Paul Tough's take on the education reform movement in the United States, excerpted in Salon from his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

The US, after all, is where the current Government seems to draw its inspiration, especially on education and welfare, though it's difficult to understand why we're so hellbent on emulating the Americans, given our education system is recognised as superior and our child poverty rates are lower.

Where the US goes, we seem bound to blindly follow.

Tough writes that where once education and poverty were two separate discussions, increasingly, "there's just one conversation, and it's about the achievement gap between rich and poor - the very real fact that overall, children who grow up in poor families in the United States are doing very badly in school".

One of the reasons for that, he suggests, is the 1994 book The Bell Curve. Though its conclusion on racial IQ remains controversial, its observation that kids who do well in school tend to do well in life, gave rise to the intriguing idea that "if we can help poor children improve their academic skills and academic outcomes, they can escape the cycle of poverty".

That idea gained momentum in the 1990s and 2000s thanks to the laudable-sounding No Child Left Behind law, enacted in 2001 by the Bush Administration, and the emergence of a number of charter schools that seemed initially "to defy the achievement gap".

Their seemingly remarkable successes with low-income children led to the belief that schools could become a powerful anti-poverty tool.

Unfortunately, that also meant schools could be punished if they failed their anti-poverty mission, whether or not they chose to accept it.

The No Child Left Behind policy forced states, cities and individual schools to compile detailed information about how their students were performing.

Just like National Standards, the data showed yawning achievement gaps between rich and poor.

Tough: "In every state, in every city, at every grade level, in almost every school, students from low-income homes were doing much worse than students from middle-class homes - they were two or three grade levels behind, on average, by the time they left middle school. And the achievement gap between rich and poor was getting worse every year."

But there's been no outbreak of student achievement since, and no narrowing of the gap between rich and poor.

Reformers are now looking to the next miracle solution: teacher quality.

As Tough writes, the current consensus is that "there are far too many underperforming teachers, especially in high-poverty schools, and the only way to improve outcomes for students in these schools is to change the way teachers are hired, trained, compensated, and fired".

That's seen the Obama Administration offering incentives to states to rewrite or amend laws governing the teaching profession, and the Gates Foundation funding a $300 million research project to try to answer definitively what effective teaching is.

As the size of that budget implies, bottling good teaching isn't as clear-cut as everyone thinks.

Good teachers matter, but the problem with conflating education and poverty, as Tough argues, is that the focus can narrow unhelpfully on one piece of the puzzle.

Besides which, there's a definitional problem to claiming educational victories with low-income children. Contrary to popular perception, the poor are not a homogeneous mash with the same characteristics and life experiences.

Tough points out that the only official indicator of the economic status of an American public school student today is eligibility for a school lunch subsidy, offered to any family whose annual income falls below 185 per cent of the poverty line, which in 2012 is US$41,348 ($49,892) for a family of four.

"So when a particular reform or school is touted as improving outcomes for low-income students, we need to remember that the Education Department's low-income designation covers about 40 per cent of American children, including some who are growing up in families that most of us would define as working-class or even middle-class."

Some 22 per cent of American children live in households below the poverty line, and about half are in households surviving on less than half that (under $11,000 a year).

They are the deeply disadvantaged (we have them too), and the uncomfortable fact is, as Tough says, that no one has found a reliable way to help them.

- NZ Herald

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