People can come very reasonable when they are arguing for policies and practices that perpetuate the soft bigotry of low expectations for poor and minority children. This is particularly true among those who seemingly argue that achievement gaps are merely a matter of how we define what kids should know — even when society, economy, and history have long ago defined it. It is only when you dissect their arguments that the lack of thoughtfulness of their arguments — especially when the implications of their thinking are shown to condemn poor and minority kids of all backgrounds to despair — become apparent.
The latest example of seemingly reasonable arguments that are anything but comes courtesy of Ted Kolderie, the former journalist and education theorist who struck a strong blow for advancing school choice 21 years ago when he ran with the idea of Albert Shanker and Richard Buddig of launching schools operated solely without traditional district bureaucracies and helped Minnesota become the first state to allow for the existence of public charter schools. This past weekend, Kolderie took to the pages of the Star Tribune to argue against systemic reform efforts such as Common Core reading and math standards being implemented in 45 states — and in fact, to essentially argue that racial-, socioeconomic-, and gender-based achievement gaps don’t exist — because they are based on a “narrow concept of achievement” that supposedly ignores the “multiple dimensions” of academic and non-academic achievement of poor and minority children.
For Kolderie, Common Core is particularly terrible because it continues a penchant among reformers for a “one-dimensional” concept of student performance that disregards young children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds. After all, argues Kolderie, we accept that quality is multidimensional, buying houses, cars, airplanes, and even moving into communities based on more than just one standard. Asks Kolderie: “Why are so many things at which many young people at which young people regarded as “low achieving” excel [such as sports] disregarded or disrespected by those defining success?”
As I said, Kolderie’s argument seems rather reasonable at first glance. After all, the ability of families to choose schools fit for their kids is at the heart of the school reform movement — especially among school choice and Parent Power activists. But Kolderie’s argument becomes rather unreasonable once you think things over.
The first problem with Kolderie’s argument — a variation on the theory of multiple intelligences peddled by Howard Gardner — is that, for the most part, there is strong connection between academic achievement and success in non-academic endeavors. Researchers such as Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto at Mississauga have long ago concluded that children who take music lessons during their early years end up building up their ability to succeed academically; this makes sense because reading (and writing) music involves the use of math (including abstractions that are also found in algebra and calculus) as well as same understanding patterns. The same is true in sports that involve strategy such as football (where reading coverage schemes involve plenty of cognition). The fact that just a lucky few will ever turn their talents in sports into lucrative or even just middle class-paying careers (as well as the penchant for adults in schools to direct black children toward athletic careers based on their biases that they are only good at sports) should have made Kolderie think again.
There’s also the fact that it is hard to engage in critical thinking without having a strong knowledge base that only comes from being literate, numerate, fluent in science, and knowledgeable about history and philosophy. This is especially important because critical thinking involves dealing with abstractions, the ideas at the very heart of civilization and society; even seemingly basic concepts such as the Golden Rule, as well as discourses mundane and critical, are formed from the complex interplay between ideas, facts, and morals. A child with a working understanding of, say, algebra, will also be able to understand why the Laffer Curve matters in discussions about tax cuts.
In his argument against Common Core standards, Kolderie confuses the comparison-shopping that happens in private-sector markets — especially those in which the consequences of poor choices by those being provided the good or service is, for the most part, low stakes — with questions about quality in education, which involve the high-stakes need for children to gain the education they need to succeed in an economy and society in which they bear the harsh consequences of educational neglect and malpractice by adults who should do well by them. He also fails to realize that unlike education, private-sector markets make it easy for companies to discern and serve consumer demands. In housing, for example, a home-builder can count on past home sales, data on housing sales, even consumer surveys to come up with offerings that meet the desires of home buyers. Such consumer feedback loops don’t exist in American public education because it is mostly government-operated (instead of merely being government-regulated), as well as because Zip Code Education policies restrict families and children from both the range of high-quality school options and data needed to make decisions on their own.
Meanwhile Kolderie refuses to acknowledge that standards are involved in every aspect of activity in the private and public sectors. Certainly a house may differ in acreage, square footage, and even design. But the underlying architectural and engineering standards for designing and building a house (along with the scientific principles behind them) are the same regardless of home-builder or subdivision. A Nook HD tablet and one made by Samsung may differ in dimensions, colors, and features, but both operate under the Android operating system and the standards developed by Google; same is true when it comes to traditional laptops offered by ASUS and Dell, which have their underlying standards derived from the Windows operating system developed by Microsoft. As for the public sector? A resident of Bowie, Md., outside of Washington, D.C., may prefer its combination of suburban conveniences and rural surroundings, while a city slicker in New York City loves the hustle-and-bustle of living there. But both demand the same standards for quality of life: Low levels of crime and vagrancy; an array of public parks for recreation on the weekends; and streets bereft of potholes and worse. In fact, one of the overriding themes of urban reform efforts in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, has been providing urban residents the same quality of life — including clean streets and low crime — that is found in suburbia.
What Kolderie fails to realize is that high standards — both in the marketplace and in the public sector — make it easier for consumers to base their choices on aspects other than the underlying structure, safety and operating capacity of products and services. Because of quality and operating standards, you can focus on other features of when purchasing an Android tablet, or a Windows-based laptop, or an automobile instead of worrying about whether the products are safe or perform their basic functions. As seen in the tech sector, it was the tacit acceptance of the Microsoft DOS/Window standards (fostered by the move by IBM and the Microsoft to license the operating system to other computer-makers) that helped advance the development of the technologies that have helped boost productivity, improved quality of life, and allowed for computer makers to provide features consumers desired at affordable prices.
Such possibilities have largely not been realized in American public education, largely because most state reading and math standards are abysmal at best. In fact, the reality for most families is that they cannot pick a district or school for their child with the confidence that any of them will do the job of providing high-quality teaching, curricula, and school cultures. In fact, as research on teacher quality has shown, the quality of education for a child can vary from one classroom to another. This is partly alleviated for the one out of every five families that have some form of choice available to them. But for the vast majority of poor and middle class families without choice, the lack of high-quality standards within American public education combine with Zip Code Education policies such as school zones and restrictions on the growth of charter schools to frustrate their efforts to provide their children with schools fit for their potential.
As in other sectors, the reality is that high quality college preparatory standards (along with reforms in how we recruit, train, compensate, and evaluate teachers) will provide families regardless of background to choose schools fit for their kids in ways other than academics by providing them with the confidence that their kids will be provided with comprehensive curricula and high-quality instruction. This is especially important to the families from poor and minority backgrounds who are often stuck sending their kids to dropout factories and failure mills. These parents, many of whom are high school dropouts and high school graduates without some form of higher education training, may not be able to cite U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data that shows that unemployment for college-educated adults aged 25 and older is half that for dropouts. They may not even be able to explain how high-skilled blue-collar work has become more-complex, with machine tool-and-die makers needing both strong mathematical skills to make sure that materials are shaped properly as well as the kind of computer programming knowledge once limited only to Silicon Valley tech types. But they have already learned the hard way about the consequences of not having the high-level reading and math skills needed for the high-paying blue- and white collar jobs that would have allowed them to enter the middle class. They also realize that their kids won’t be able to choose any future they want, be it as engineers or artists or entrepreneurs, if they don’t know understand trigonometry and Newton’s First Law of Physics.
Simply put, these families are acknowledging the real world — especially in the job market — and its demands that children are literate, numerate, and knowledgeable about the world around them. More importantly, they expect their children to achieve success and to learn all they need in order to escape poverty and write their own stories. And they are demanding that districts and schools to embrace the legendary John Taylor Gatto’s admonition that all children should be regarded as geniuses — and educated that way — so their kids and their grandchildren can succeed as well as survive.
This is something that Kolderie, who has as much access to data on the changing workforce as yours truly, fails to do. More importantly, in arguing that reformers (or as he describes them, “middle-class folks with advanced degrees and aptitudes”) are essentially demanding that districts serving our poorest children provide them with the same high-quality education they would expect for their own children, Kolderie is essentially demeaning the intelligence and potential of poor and minority children with his own low expectations for them. Kolderie may have thought he was being well-meaning in his statements; but he is actually insulting our children by declaring that there is no way they can actually excel against their peers from middle class backgrounds. As high-quality schools serving poor and minority kids (including those of the Knowledge is Power Program) have shown, the reality is that poor and minority children can succeed if they are provided comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, high-quality instruction, help in the form of intensive reading and math remediation, and the nurturing cultures of genius in which they are more than just future athletes and musicians. In fact, one of the reasons why so many black and Latino children are educated so miserably is because adults in schools and districts deem them incapable of learning and unworthy of more than just warehoused for eight hours in the day.
The problem isn’t how achievement is defined. The problem lies with mindsets of adults, including well-meaning types such as Kolderie, who don’t see how black and Latino children can succeed in school and in life. And it is time to banish such thinking to the ashbin of history.