It is hard for me to get excited at educational policy talks. A good scholarly paper makes me happy; a great story about teaching moves me. But talk on educational policy… Let’s just say, these things usually bring out a skeptic in me. In fact, I can’t remember last time it happened to me, – until Thursday night that is, when Robert Balfanz gave a talk at the RI Foundation. I thought – these are all things I always knew to be true, but just could not say it. First, he deal with education in terms of dropout prevention. It is a much better lens than international tests. Dropping out of school is a real and often tragic event, coinciding with giving up hope to succeed. In contrast, the shrill calls for outcompeting the world through education strike the wrong note, not only because they are untrue, and are just disconnected from real lives.
Balfantz then goes into a simple line of reasoning: future dropouts can be easily identified by sixth grade, and not by test scores alone (one must consider absenteeism and behavioral problems). Different kids may have very different reasons for falling behind, and they need a different set of interventions. There should be a better allocation of resources: some schools have much more need than others, and therefore should receive more resources. Schools alone, in the narrow sense cannot help them. While kids must all have a good lesson in the morning, there should be a second shift of adults offering rich after school activities, support, specialized interventions, and just the sense of community and belonging. All of these efforts should not only resourced (for example, by shifting resources from the justice and prison expenses), but also targeted and coordinated. Teachers shuld be closely involved with the “second shift” people. Balfantz like to use the term “engineered.” Another metaphor he uses education requires coordination effort comparable to putting together a Broadway show.
I noticed that there were no usual divisions in the room. The approach can bring people from different camps. Teachers have always rightfully argued that schools and teachers alone cannot undo the effects of concentrated poverty, no matter how hard they try. Many educational researchers have been arguing that schools as institutions of pure learning cannot work, and need to be augmented and diversified to improve. The reformers liked that there is still measurements, accountability, clear numerical targets (the drop-out rate) which have direct economic significance. The after school crowd of course, loved this, too, for obvious reasons. This is one unique case where the idea may actually play well politically, for everyone can be (and should be) included. Balfantz’s strength is in the systems approach. He is basically suggesting we may have enough resources to significantly reduce drop our rate; all we need to do is to organize and allocate them smartly.
The national education policy since Reagan has been doing very few things, each is somewhat promising, but also so mind-bogglingly disconnected. The reform has been dominated by non-professionals, who believe in miracles, and fail to see nuances. Every time one of us in the profession tries to critique another silver bullet, they take it as resistance to change. So, they will not listen, and keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Their passionate, well-intended, but unsophisticated thinking did little to address education’s problems. A quarter of century worth of reforms has very little to show for the money. The thinking goes like this: let’s just do more of the same, and do it a whole lot harder, and for longer, and it should work. If it does not work, overcome the sabotage in the profession. It created a whole new set of political divisions which did not exist before, by asking teachers to perform miracles, and then blaming them for failure to deliver.
A platform that would reunite fractious groups of educators is possible, and it can be developed along the lines of Balfantz’s thinking. Let’s keep all the existing reform efforts. I wish some could be just scaled down a little, take less time and attention, but let’s keep them all, but find proper places. Yes, we need a set of national standards, and better testing. Yes, we need coherent teacher evaluation systems, better induction practices, and experimental schools. But we also need to bring a whole lot of additional resources into struggling schools – social workers, community partners, – in such a way that they don’t fall over each other. We need to elevate our diagnostics (along the lines suggested by the RTI) to a more sophisticated, and yet simpler level. Let’s measure not just tests and grades, and learning outcomes, but also engagement levels, how attached kids are to schools and to the adult world. Are they fed? Healthy? Have a stable home? We need to think of a whole day, from morning to night, not just about lessons from 9 to 2.
The big task is the system building. It can be done. For example, our friends in PASA have figured out how to bring dozens of after school service providers and putting them into one schedule to serve Providence kids. Central Falls is experimenting with the Restorative justice Approach which integrates social work with education. They are also trying to connect public schools with charter schools. There are many other examples, recent, local, but also historical, and across the world. It is important to realize that the integration work is a special kind of work. Bringing community partners, schools and social services is no small task. Someone has to develop a model for integrative, logistical services, with the use of contemporary information technologies.
If Arne Duncan was an educator, that’s what he would fund. But I don’t want to wait for another wave of ill-conceived reforms to pass. I think we should just do it in Rhode Island.