The Divide Over Education

Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future, David L. Kirp, PublicAffairs, 270 pages, $24.99

A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn't in Providing an Excellent Education for All, Wendy Kopp with Steven Farr, PublicAffairs, 229 pages, $25.99

During the last five years the policy debate over our nation's schools, and therefore our nation's children, has come to this: You either believe that the lag in educational achievement among poor, minority kids cannot be overcome until poverty and other social troubles are addressed, or you believe that blaming the achievement gap on those problems is unacceptable and the schools are, in fact, the best place to break the cycle of poverty.

The sides in this battle were drawn in ink in 2008, when prominent academics, entrepreneurs and education leaders signed dueling manifestos. One coalition, Broader, Bolder, made community services for children and families a crucial priority. The other group, the Education Equality Project, pushed for changes in schools alone.

Now the debate has become so polarized that any public dialogue is entirely predictable, and increasingly nasty. One of the only commonalities between the sides is a propensity to claim that they are the ones "putting children first."

Here's another thing they have in common: They are both right.

It is a fact that poor, minority children arrive at kindergarten lagging in just about every measure relevant to education: cognition, vocabulary, social skills. Those disadvantages are inarguably difficult to erase. It is also a fact that some schools and teachers make a real difference for students in spite of the dysfunctional environment they may have grown up in. So how did a set of commonsense truths become riven into two movements that find little ground for agreement, much less joint action?

David Kirp offers a vision for reform that like the "Broader, Bolder" manifesto touches little, if at all, on K-12 academics. A Berkeley professor of public policy and longtime advocate of high-quality preschool, Kirp writes in Kids First that every child "deserves what's good enough for a child you love." He calls attention to community services for poor families that my middle-class peers would envy, such as free doulas and dance classes. These are luxuries for anyone, of course. Kirp's true purpose here is to advocate five broader priorities: parenting support programs, better preschool for more children, community services attached to schools, intensive mentoring for students, and a federally funded college savings account for every American newborn.

What's not to like about that list? As an example of parenting support, Kirp points to the Nurse-Family Partnership, which sends nurses into homes to build ongoing relationships with poor women from pregnancy through their children's infancy. Kirp calls the partnership "the most effective parenting program ever devised," citing educational outcomes, reductions in child abuse, and other measures. Another program he champions, Friends of the Children, assigns trained professionals to mentor needy kids for as many as 12 years. By one estimate it returns a 6-to-1 investment on the dollar, considering that the participants are more likely than their peers to stay in school and out of trouble.

For that matter, who wouldn't want their children in the classrooms of the teachers that Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, features in her book A Chance to Make History? Superstar high school teacher Megan Brousseau spends at least 55 hours a week working with her students, not including the time she devotes to training, preparing for class, and grading work. Then there's Priscilla Mendoza: If your second-grade boy were lucky enough to be in her class, Mendoza would probably boost his reading two grade levels in a single year -- and show up at his soccer games too. And even if Maurice Thomas's high school students start the year with woeful skills, they still write serious research papers, a task that many students in Advanced Placement classes at the nation's most affluent high schools never undertake.

Kopp's examples suggest that it is not enough for elementary school teachers to think about getting their students through elementary school: No, every moment of every day they should think about getting them through college. They shouldn't just set specific goals and keep close track of how students are progressing toward them; the best teachers bring the children into this process, intimately and emphatically and continuously.

Even though not all of the elite young adults placed by Teach for America in high-poverty classrooms are successful, the strides that some make with needy children show what is possible. Poverty? Just an excuse.

Yet it's not so much as an excuse but an explanation, clarifying why many of the best inner-city teachers work 12-hour days, until they can't do it any longer. It helps explain why the most successful charter schools keep children in school nine or more hours instead of the typical six. It helps explain why Teach for America, having done exhaustive research on the factors predicting success in the classroom, accepts less than 10 percent of applicants from a pool already stacked with high achievers.

Kopp holds up as an example of "dramatic progress" the growth in the number of highly successful schools serving poor kids in Philadelphia. By her count, a city that had no such schools in 2003 has "at least a half-dozen" today. But that's just one success story on average a year. Intransigent bureaucracies, stale practices, uneven skills and effort, and inequitable distribution of resources are major obstacles, and the effects of poverty are too.

There is no consensus among researchers on exactly how much of a child's academic standing can be attributed to home and community versus school, though that has not stopped both sides from suggesting the case is closed in one direction or the other. (Kopp and Kirp, to their credit, avoid sweeping statements and stick to specific, if selective research.) The logical, though insane, extension of a belief that educators can't serve students well when their lives outside the classroom are troubled is not to bother sending those kids to school at all. Likewise, the person with a singular faith in the potential power of great educators to lift children out of poverty may see no reason to invest in any social services outside the schoolhouse doors.

Almost nobody actually hews to so rigid a line, refusing to acknowledge, for example, that we could provide better preschools and better high schools. In Kirp's passages about Joel Klein, the former New York schools chancellor comes closer than anyone I've seen to expressing such a narrow view, but in his defense Klein ran the schools and to my knowledge never said the Department of Social Services should be shut down.

Unfortunately, there is a common theme to many of the programs Kirp praises: None of them -- and none of the most successful educational experiments either -- have been attempted outside of small, contained environments. Just as important, we don't understand exactly why they are effective. Take Michigan's Perry Preschool Project. More than 100 children from the school, who were followed by researchers from the 1960s through adulthood, were found to have substantially better life outcomes than their peers. Perry is thus the most heralded early childhood program ever. But we don't know which of its many elements -- teacher quality, curriculum, leadership, home visits -- contributed to its success.

Kirp points out that only a few Perry children "were lifted into the middle class." Whether the effects of a good preschool endure depends on the education that follows. Likewise, while Kirp suggests that the government invest $500 or more in a college fund for each American newborn, even guarantees of a fully paid tuition have proven insufficient to get students into and through higher education.

This is not to say that his ideas lack merit -- it is just that they are not enough. Kopp acknowledges that hers aren't enough either. Relying on heroic teaching, she says, has its limits. "Despite years of research and observation, millions of dollars, and the attention of the best minds we could find, we are still working to produce even a relatively small force of teachers who are consistently effecting the level of student progress that we saw in the classrooms of Megan, Maurice, and Priscilla," she writes.

Teach for America has amassed a formidable list of friends in Congress, and it receives tens of millions of dollars each year in federal funding. Some of the key reforms pressed by Teach for America's allies are budget-neutral or could even save money, such as allowing school districts to lay off the most ineffective teachers rather than the newest ones.

Kirp gives his "pragmatopia," as he calls it, a price tag of $50 billion a year. He says some of this can be shifted from other funding sources, but boutique, experimental programs inevitably sacrifice quality when brought to scale. And the quality he rightly pushes for costs dearly to begin with. Friends of the Children spends nearly $10,000 to mentor each child each year, and Educare, an enriching and intimate experience that lasts from infancy through preschool, does much better for children than Head Start, but for two and a half times more money per year.

I neglected to mention that the two camps have one other thing in common: the support of Arne Duncan, who as Chicago schools CEO was the only person to sign both manifestos. As Secretary of Education, Duncan has been pushing, especially through his Race to the Top grants, for the kind of reform Kopp calls for in her book. He has also seeded support for Promise Neighborhoods and talks often of the importance of preschool and other services for the needy.

Investing in both robust services outside of schools and intensive reforms within them may be the right call. But in a time of shrinking budgets for public services and heightened political polarization, a truly holistic "children first" agenda is likely to suffer, a microcosm of the kind of divisive politics we've come to expect in this country.