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Inner-city Education

Posted By: Dan Weinles on July 12, 2002
 
I would just like to recommend that Mr. Pappano, his aides, and other politicians, who will eventually be steering educational policy, more intensely examine vouchers and school choice systems in general in the research literature. Benefits accruing to choosing students are not necessarily the result of school practices, but rather may be more related to the collection, or composition, of students that are concentrated in private or public choice schools. What most people outside of educational practice do not fully enough appreciate is that the general make-up of students, in terms of their previous skill levels, attitutes toward education and related behaviors in school, levels of effort, etc., significantly shapes what schools do and how they do it on a daily basis. The overall school climate is largely the result of these collective student influences. For instance, whether or not a school can attract and retain "high quality," or highly credentialed teachers is largely a function of the perceived "desirability" of teaching in the particular school from the perspective of teachers. Schools with high concentrations of difficult-to-educate children--those who do not do homework, show in-class motivation, demonstrate steady academic progress, exhibit disrespect to teachers, etc.--will generally be perceived as undesirable by both parents and teachers. This in turn leads to teacher flight and parental flight, usually by the best qualified teachers (since they are more likely to find employment in other more "desirable" schools) and by the most educationally involved parents (those who are more educationally savvy, pay more attention to school happenings, and are more involved in their children's education generally). This potential downward spiral is wholly unaccounted for by school choice proponents.

Schools are primarily the creation of the collection of students who attend them, whether we want to admit it or not. The collective influence of the student body invariably shapes both school-wide policies and individual staff expecations and practices just as much, if not more, than do school and staff practices impact students. Anytime, you develop an educational system which better enables more involved parents to "choose out" (of the public non-selective schools) and implicitly, and many times explicitly, enables a given school sector to select and de-select (expel or pressure out) its students, of course, you are going to have improved academic outcomes in that sector. If today's neighborhood public schools had quick recourse to shape their respective student bodies, most, if not all, would reap immediate rewards in terms of academic performance. Problematic students would largely be excluded, thereby decreasing their impact on the remaining student bodies. But legally-based regulations and related procedures often prevent this from occurring.

Introducing the private sector just puts public schools at a further disadvantage. They will inevitably be placed in the position of serving more and more highly concentrated populations of the most behaviorally troubled, lowest achieving students from the most unsupportive family backgrounds. "Escapees" will no doubt benefit, but the isolation of a substantial population of our urban public school students in schools highly segregated by the aforementioned characterstics will neither improve public education nor will it benefit society. It is time to realize that while bureaucratic structure represents a real problem in public education in our cities, it has in large part been the evolving result of years and years of educational problems in urban public schools. In this sense, bureaucracy is as much an historical effect as it is a present cause of urban educational under-percormance.

Running to a system of private choice is tantamount, in my opinion, to running away from some of the most important societal problems which are highly implicated in educational failure and school ineffectiveness. These problems are primarily socio-economically and culturally based. When poverty and anti-educational attitudes and behaviors (among students) are highly concentrated into non-selective schools, which are charged with the mission, and requirement, of educating all children regardless of academic levels, behaviors, etc., bad things are much more likely to happen. I have as yet seen no evidence (and I have read a great deal of the studies on school choice and privatization) that such reforms will improve the lot of all or even most inner-city students. We are both blaming and placing undue hope in schools to overcome extensive problems that are rooted in society, in both economics and culture, and concentrated in schools, problems that require solutions that can not be sufficiently addressed in schools, which have our children for no more than 33 hours per week, and in many cases, have their attention for a great deal less than that.

Dan Weinles
Temple University
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 Research Opportunities by Ronald Nuttall on July 2, 2002
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