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THE 65 PERCENT NON-SOLUTION! What was missing from Finder’s report? The view from those (low-income) chairs: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JANUARY 5, 2006

WHO ORDERED FAIRNESS: What’s the ultimate problem with sports? On occasion, the other team does get to win! And so it went in last night’s Pasadenapalooza—although we had doubted, since last year’s Rose Bowl, that the Trojans could defeat Vince Young. By the way—Young was also completely superb in his lengthy post-game press conference. ESPN kept him on a long time. Unlike with the occasionally grumbling Messrs. Leinhart and Bush, every syllable was upbeat and appropriate.

Meanwhile, USC uber-fan Kevin Drum e-mailed us to say that no, he didn’t have us in mind in that December 6 post in which he dropped the R-bomb. Indeed, Kevin had apparently e-mailed us this at an earlier date; as many of you may have noticed, we have developed some extremely bad habits regarding our e-mail. Indeed, we read Kevin’s e-mail this week because of a new year’s resolution—one we still occasionally observe in the breach. Man oh man! It’s a horrible habit. But it does save massive time when you start skipping your e-mail.

We appreciate Kevin’s note, and we’re sorry we missed his earlier missive—and that we misunderstood the intention of his original post. As readers will know, we’re big admirers of Kevin’s work, except for some press-related complaints. And this morning, post-Rose Bowl, we feel Kevin’s pain. Clearly, Vince Young should have been barred from college quarterbacking last year, on the basis of size-speed-strength quotients. But the NCAA failed to act—and the mighty Pac-10 (we’re ecumenical) ended up getting jobbed in the process.

THE 65 PERCENT NON-SOLUTION: Is money the root of all solutions? In yesterday’s Times, Alan Finder reported on a new proposal from a new advocacy group, First Class Education. The group wants “to compel school districts to spend at least 65 percent of their operating budgets on classroom instruction,” Finder wrote. Tim Mooney, a founder of First Class Ed, explains his group’s idea:

FINDER (1/4/05): The goal, Mr. Mooney said, is not to reduce school spending but to shift what he views as inefficient expenditures on administration and support services to teachers and students. ''If you did this in all 50 states, it's $14 billion more a year,'' Mr. Mooney said. ''It's enough for a new computer for every student in the country, or 300,000 new teachers.''

''We're going to create some priorities,'' Mr. Mooney said. ''We're going to say that the classroom—students and teachers—come first.”

In many states, this proposal wouldn’t be a blockbuster; on average, 61.3 percent of school budgets are already spent in the classroom, Finder notes. And he quotes well-placed observers who think the proposal is bunk:
FINDER: ''This is an absolutely phony sound bite,'' said Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. ''Schools have such a variety of needs, and they have very, very different spending habits. And there is no evidence that spending 65 percent of your budget on classroom spending will produce higher academic achievement.''
So there! We’re not quite sure why this proposal is getting so much play. But Finder’s report does give us a chance to stage a useful thought experiment.

Here’s the question, as we posed it yesterday: Suppose you were teaching in a low-achieving, low-income grade school—the kind of school where kids may be several years below grade level in reading by the fourth or fifth grade. And suppose that someone gave you a big chunk of money that you could spend in your classroom. In theory, these are the schools which need the most help—the schools which produce the lowest levels of literacy. You’d think that this money would be a big help. But as we asked yesterday: Why might that money be hard to spend well? Why can it be hard to help the delightful kids who struggle in our low-income schools?

We taught fifth grade in Baltimore’s schools. During that time (1969-1982), we spent large chunks of our own money, putting resources into the classroom which otherwise wouldn’t have been there. But it can be hard to supply classrooms for low-achieving kids. Finder’s piece doesn’t mention this fact. We’ll speculate why as we finish.

Why is it hard to supply these classrooms? Because it can be hard to find appropriate reading materials for kids who are several years below grade level. Back in those days, we spent our own money buying “high-interest, low-readability” books; these books discuss topics appropriate for eleven- or twelve-year-olds, but do so at a reading level that a struggling reader can understand. We would buy these books five or six at a time, so that struggling children could sit and read them to each other (as middle-class kids do at earlier ages). For example, we bought copies of a readable bio of Frederick Douglass, one of our greatest Americans (and Baltimoreans). (Careful! Put clear contact paper on the covers of these books, so they will withstand constant use!) We can still see our fifth- and sixth-graders reading this book in small groups to each other. The book was greatly interesting to them (more tomorrow)—but it was written at second- or third-grade level, the level at which they were actually functioning. It was exactly what these kids needed. It gave them the chance to have the kind of reading experience their middle-class peers got almost from birth—the kind of experience which low-income kids can go through years of school without getting.

But in those days, it was hard to find such appropriate books, because they weren’t being widely published. And it was impossible to find readable textbooks for Baltimore’s social studies or science curriculum; there were no textbooks which were designed to teach that curriculum to below-level readers. Indeed, if someone had given us a big chunk of change to spend on resources for our classroom, we would have found it hard or impossible to buy the things we most desperately needed. Appropriate textbooks (and supplementary materials)? Appropriate books for leisure reading? These were the things we badly needed. And they were hard—or impossible—to find. Publishing companies weren’t churning them out—and urban systems were often working to pretend that they weren’t needed. Call it “the soft bigotry of high expectations.” In those days, urban systems loved to pretend that things were better than they actually were—at savage, obscene cost to the kids.

Twenty-five to 30 years later, has this groaning problem been solved? This is one of the questions we plan to explore, in detail, over the course of the next year or so. For example, in Baltimore’s current low-income classrooms, are teachers able to give below-level readers a wealth of readable textbooks and supplementary materials—books these kids can read and learn from, books with which they can really be challenged, the way their middle-class peers get challenged? How about in Detroit? In Philadelphia? In our day, the lack of appropriate books (and instructional programs) made a daily joke of these kids’ educations and lives. Has the problem been solved today? Has it been addressed at all? We plan to ask these school systems’ leaders—and we hope to ask the teachers who go to work in these systems’ schools every day.

We don’t mean this as a criticism of Finder; he penned a perfectly valid report about that hot new spending proposal. But when we read the Finder report, we did think that one perspective was missing. As is so often the case in our public ed discourse, no one in Finder’s report discusses the way this new proposal might play out for the kids in our lowest-achieving schools. But then, the specific needs and experiences of these children are typically absent from our public ed dialogue. To our mind, it’s as if they inhabit forgotten villages—much like Steinbeck’s “forgotten village,” the one we watched on film with our first class, 35 long years ago. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/11/03. Scroll down to the last section.)

To our ear, the specific needs of low-income kids are typically absent from public ed discourse. Do our education writers—and our public ed “experts”—spend much time observing these children? Here’s what Jonathan Kozol says in his current book, The Shame of the Nation:

KOZOL (page 163): You have to go back to the schools themselves to find an answer to these questions. You have to sit down in the little chairs in first and second grade, or on the reading rugs with kindergarten kids, and listen to the things they actually say to one another and the dialogue between them and their teachers. You have to go down to the basement with the children when it’s time for lunch and to the playground with them, if they have a playground, when it’s time for recess, if they still have recess...You have to do what children do and breathe the air the children breathe. I don’t think there’s any other way to find out what the lives that children lead in school are really like.
And you have to read the books children read—or the books they’re handed although they can’t read them. In our experience, the lives that low-income kids lead in school are unlike the lives of their middle-class peers. But we rarely see those lives reflected in our education discourse. Have our experts spent enough time in those little chairs? With respect, we rarely get the sense that they have. In this new year, we’ll try to find out, once again, what the lives of these children are like—as we look for the things we can do to make their struggling schools more humane and productive.

What are these schools really like today? In this new year, we hope to find out. For our money, specific question of this kind are rarely asked in our current discourse. What would we see if we sat in those chairs? This year, we’ll try to find out.