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Kahlenberg and Wasow Reply

8 We have argued that the fundamental problem of our education system is the poor quality of education provided to the bottom quarter of students. We discussed why neither the old-time remedy of traditional reform nor the wonder drug of vouchers is likely to cure this problem. We detailed why the former lacks potency while the latter is largely snake oil. So what do we want? It is not “fanciful pedagogies,” as Amy Hanauer suggests. Nor is it simply a change in peer effects, as Richard Murnane implies.

Our main point is that it is much easier for a predominantly middle-class school than for a high-poverty school to provide the excellent teachers, supportive peers, and many active parents that foster successful education. So we seek a socioeconomic mix that is predominantly middle class at every school. Accomplishing this goal requires freely chosen transfers into good schools, a universal system that does not simply serve those with the strongest motivation, and a set of fairness guidelines that ensure that choice promotes rather than undercuts socioeconomic integration.

Murnane argues that principles of school reform without details are empty. While we think he goes too far, we agree that design details matter. The controlled-choice system in use in San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts, (among others) is one attractive alternative. But we agree with Bill Galston that in some venues, transfers into schools beyond district boundaries would be necessary to achieve socioeconomic integration. It is likely that some programs will have to span metropolitan areas and subdivide them into zones to make transportation feasible. Fanciful? Today, some one-half million students cross school district lines to attend public school.

Vouchers

Several respondents defend school vouchers against our criticisms.

Galston dismisses the argument that privatization of schools threatens civic integration: “. . . Catholic schools (about half of the the non-public sector) are at least as effective in imparting civic knowledge, skills, and beliefs as are the public schools . . .” He adds that regulation can ensure compliance with civic norms. But if Catholic schools are the gold standard, where will regulation draw the line when schools affiliated with Bob Jones University and the Nation of Islam seek voucher students? Or, if these schools are ineligible, on what principle are Catholic schools acceptable?

Does government regulation of private schools offer the solution? On this question, Galston and Joseph Viteritti offer contradictory opinions. Galston is confident that regulation can ensure a core of common civic values. But Viteritti would do away with any system that “tells poor parents that they can choose the schools their children attend so long as they do not choose schools that the gatekeepers of public policy don’t want them to choose.” The whole thrust of the voucher movement is to remove “the gatekeepers of public policy,” to deregulate and privatize. In this atmosphere, what gives Galston confidence that regulation will hold in check the excesses of America’s religious and political fringes, to say nothing of the mendacity of educational hucksters? If the 30 percent of the population that Galston says is poorly served by America’s schools does get vouchers, we suggest that all bets are off as to what the population of private schools might look like in the future, when it would be three times its present size. Besides, if substantial regulation is part of the program, why not simply expand the population of charter schools, which are, by construction, closely regulated and secular?

Traditional Reform

Amy Hanauer and Reg Weaver argue for traditional reform of neighborhood schools. Though we agree with much of what they say— parental engagement and excellent teaching make for successful schools—overwhelming evidence suggests that neighborhood schools in high-poverty areas have great difficulty achieving such results.

In contrast, controlled school choice enables every student to go to a school that has many involved parents and good teachers. Choice itself is not our primary goal, but the means to achieve our fundamental goal: equality of educational opportunity through socioeconomic integration.

The role of money in solving the problem of educational inequality arises repeatedly in these comments. We are amused by Viteritti’s explanation of the weak record of voucher programs so far: they are underfunded. This is essentially the same reason Hanauer and Weaver give for the failure of neighborhood schools in high-poverty neighborhoods. More money surely could permit smaller classes, higher teacher salaries and other valuable reforms. Murnane notes that there is some level of focused spending at which it becomes attractive to work with high concentrations of low-income children. But 40 years of social-science research suggests that increased spending alone cannot solve the problem of educational inequality.

Cambridge

So too, four decades of research, dating back to the Coleman Report of 1966, firmly establishes that the achievement of any given student is significantly affected by the social class of his student body. Cambridge’s public schools have not performed particularly well, as Murnane points out, but this only underlines the significance of socioeconomic integration. Until September 2002, the district’s controlled-choice program promoted integration by race but left large socioeconomic disparities, as upper-middle-class white and black students clustered at certain schools while low-income students clustered at others. It was the very failure of racial integration alone to raise achievement that in large measure prompted Cambridge to focus on socioeconomic integration.

Testing and Tracking

Deborah Meier chides us for entering the discussion of the effect of vouchers on test scores. She emphasizes, as we tried to as well, that much of what education is about—building citizenship, character, and humanity—is not measured by standardized test results. But testing can both provide an incentive to teach the essential skills of literacy and numeracy and give some indication (albeit incomplete) of the success of that enterprise. Excessive reliance on testing, however, not only diverts attention and teaching resources away from important goals and subjects that are not tested, it motivates those whose work is being assessed to manipulate outcomes by diverting the weakest students away from high stake tests.

Meier also raises the important issue of tracking. At its worst, tracking can simply recreate within each school the inequality that exists today among schools. Low-income students spend their days together in the bottom track, while college-bound middle-class students share classes that are separate and far from equal. But tracking offers opportunities that good governance within a school can exploit. For example, when author Wasow’s children attended Intermediate School 70 in Manhattan, tracking did indeed tend to separate students by economic class, but only math and English were tracked. Students took most courses together. What is more, class size for the bottom track was held to 15 students while the top-track classes had as many as 35, concentrating teacher attention on those who most needed it. A diverse school with tracking offers many more opportunities than a homogeneous neighborhood school for children to learn from diverse peers, as well as for good teachers to work with all students.

Political Feasibility

One theme that runs through many of the responses is a belief that Americans will never accept socioeconomic integration. In fact, the number of students attending schools in districts that employ economic integration programs has skyrocketed from 20,000 in 1999 to roughly 500,000 today. In contrast, publicly funded private-school vouchers serve only about 15,000 students. Socioeconomic integration is not an easy political sell; it takes leadership. But creative incentives can and have been found to encourage middle-class families to buy into integration.

*  *  *

Most participants in the debate about education reform line up either in favor of more resources for neighborhood schools or in favor of more resources for private schools. We doubt the effectiveness of either solution. Rather, we look back to the integrationist spirit that motivated liberals a half century ago. In 1954 Thurgood Marshall argued before the Supreme Court that schools segregated by race could never be equal. We believe that schools segregated by social class almost never can be equal either. The advantages will flow to the powerful and the rich. The best hope for ending this inequity is not the magic of the market nor greater efforts to equalize separate schools, but integration by socioeconomic class. Public-school choice, controlled to ensure socioeconomic integration, can make this happen. <


Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum, “What Makes Schools Work?”

Originally published in the October/November 2003 issue of Boston Review



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