Schoolhouse Rock

The Divide

The debate I wrote about yesterday , between the teachers-union wing of the Democratic Party and the pro-charter-school education-reform wing, is in some ways a symptom of a even deeper divide between two competing approaches to public education today.

On one side, you have people who think that the most important determiner of educational success is demographic. I’ve heard from a lot of teachers these past two weeks who have voiced this feeling: Low-income students come to them from broken homes and dangerous neighborhoods with poor reading skills and a slack work ethic, and it’s just not fair to expect teachers to achieve high-quality results with those students.

On the other side, you have people who say that talk like that is nothing more than a convenient excuse for continued educational failure, a way to perpetuate an unaccountable school system. They say there’s lots of evidence, especially coming out of some new and innovative charter schools, that we can make a huge dent in the problems of poor kids using extended class hours and intensive teaching methods.

There are two new advocacy groups that more or less represent the two sides of this debate. On one side you have a group of scholars and social scientists who call themselves the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education . They call for increased spending on early-childhood education, health care, and other social supports instead of an emphasis on school reform alone.

On the other side, you have the Education Equality Project , led by Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. They call for legislative changes that would enable the people who are creating those successful experiments: more charter schools, the kind of teacher-pay reforms I wrote about last week, increased school choice.

These two groups announced their formation on consecutive days in June, and ever since, they’ve kind of been at one another’s throats.

There are many people I admire on both sides of this divide. Geoffrey Canada, the subject of my new book , signed on to the Education Equality Project; James Heckman , the economist whose work I hold up in the book as the most persuasive evidence that the Harlem Children’s Zone could have a transformative effect in the lives of poor children, signed on with the Broader, Bolder Approach. Wise scholars like Glenn Loury and Christopher Jencks and William Julius Wilson are on the Broader team; innovative superintendents like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee and Michael Bennet are on the Equality side.

There doesn’t seem to be much common ground.

So, I’m going to suggest a compromise.

To those in the Broader camp: Let’s admit that our public schools could be serving poor kids much, much better than they are today, and that in order to do that, they need a radical overhaul right away. Let’s agree that the best charter schools, like KIPP and Achievement First and Green Dot , have found a whole new way of educating disadvantaged children, and that it works. So, why not embrace looser contracts like the one proposed in D.C. and the one adopted in Denver . Help persuade teachers to give up some job security in exchange for more pay. Help the school systems get rid of poor-performing teachers—not just a few of them, but a big swath, the whole bottom tier. And to replace them, let’s create alternative certification programs and encourage unconventional career paths that will attract the kind of committed young overachievers who actually want to teach in the most challenging classrooms but can’t stand the thought of slogging their way through a couple of years of education school.

To those in the Education Equality camp: Let’s admit that alone, even the best charter schools can’t fix the crisis in the nation’s worst urban neighborhoods. Let’s agree that if we truly want to be data-driven, we should accept the data that say that the most effective time to intervene in a poor child’s life is in infancy, before that child ever gets into the school system. So, why not apply some of your intelligence, passion, organizational talent, and financial resources to building out-of-school supports like prekindergartens, parenting programs, and family counseling? Let’s figure out how to take the accountability methods and organizational structures you’ve brought to middle schools and apply them to preschools. Let’s figure out how best to provide poorly educated and overstressed parents with new strategies for preparing their kids for school. Let’s build a new kind of no-excuses school, one that is integrated with an early-childhood program and a strategy to improve the surrounding community.

It may be wishful thinking, but that’s where I believe Obama is trying to push his party. And I do think it’s a path toward a real solution to some of the problems that seem most unsolvable—not only in our schools, but in our inner-city neighborhoods as well.