Friday, June 10, 2011

Two Cultures

Among those who write about education policy, one of the very few I respect is Diane Ravitch.

Here's a wonderful little piece she wrote on the effects of poverty. It's conclusion is that the failures of education are rooted in poverty and that, if we do not seek its redress, all our educational remedies will fail. I concur.

Doubt it? Doubt that the problems of the classroom have their roots outside the classroom? Look here. The data that seems to prove the mediocrity of U.S. schools is aggregate data. It brings together students from all regions and all economic strata. If we disaggregate and compare, say, those from schools in which the poverty rate is less than 10% to students in countries with a similarly low poverty rate, we find that students here in the U.S. outperform all those in all other countries. The problem isn't the teachers. The problem isn't the schools. The problem is poverty.

"But aren't the schools where the majority are poor inferior?" Yes, of course. But ask yourself what's cause and what's effect. Do inferior schools make their students poor, or does the poverty of the students render the schools inferior? The former contains a bit of truth, the latter more than a bit. It's damn hard to teach at a school whose students live in poverty. Those gigs grind a teacher down. Most of the good ones flee. Most of the ones that remain are disengaged at best.

Take care here. When we speak of poverty and say that it is the cause of the failures of education, we must take this to mean the culture of poverty. We have one country but two cultures. One is a culture of achievement. The other is a culture of failure. One is composed of insiders, of those who exemplify the traits of character necessary for success. The other is composed of outsiders. Some outsiders are ignorant of the means for success - diligence, self-denial, frugality and all the rest. Some know the means but lack the ability to bring them about. Some simply don't care.

The goal, of course, is to bring the outsiders inside, and this means that they must begin to behave as insiders. But here, as it were, we face a challenge before the challenge. Precious few acknowledge the real issue. Some seem to believe that money alone will solve the problem They're wrong. (Note that I don't say that money isn't part of the solution. It is an essential part.) An outsider who becomes wealthy doesn't transform into an insider. All that she becomes is a wealthy outsider; the rest remains the same. Some seem to believe that schools deserve the greater part of the blame. They're wrong too.

What we must do first is confront the problem. We must recognize that the task before us is to change minds and reform characters. This is our challenge. Habits of thought and of behavior and must broken and reformed. Let us begin to apply ourselves to that task.

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