April 9, 2010

We Need Education, Not Integration

Mike, writing at the Big Stick, makes the argument that conservatives ought to support socio-economic integration as a strategy for producing better educational outcomes by poor students. His argument for this?

exposure to students from higher income backgrounds has a profound effect on achievement.

He continues, quoting a Democracy Now article:

And it’s not just money that matters; it’s the people in and around a school. Every school community has three sets of actors: children; teachers and administrators; and parents. Middle-class schools tend to provide positive, well-disciplined peer role models, good teachers, and an active parent volunteer community, which benefit all the students in a school. This is an important key feature of integration. In districts where busing creates more socio-economically integrated schools, parents from middle and upper class incomes become advocates not just for their own children but for their childrens’ low-income classmates.

This is where his analysis goes off the rails. Parental involvement is the single biggest determinant of what happens with a child's learning. I'm willing to bet money that poor kids attending more affluent schools are doing so because they have more engaged parents who took action to get them into those schools. For example, in the suburb where I live, there are a significant number of families living in subsidized housing (Section 8 recipients). Those families made conscious decisions to get housing in an area where the school system is better performing to give their kids a better chance. Those kids underperform the district, but it would not surprise me to learn that they outperform the public school city kids. Its not the exposure to kids with a higher socio-economic status, its the decisions parents make about where their kids go to school and how they support their academics at home that is the key. Socio-economic status is merely a proxy for parental engagement or the lack thereof and that's why its predictive. I don't for one second believe that the people who carried out the civil rights battles that resulted in busing for the purpose of integration were actually seeking integration as a goal. Those people were simply trying to bust black kids out of the educational ghetto and get them into the better equipped and resourced schools whites attended. They made the best arguments they could using the law to accomplish that result. You would find few blacks today who would argue for busing for integration purposes, racial or socio-economic, as a method for creating better educational outcomes. They simply want to get their kids into a better school. Integration was the proxy that got black kids into better resourced white school systems and people fought to maintain that rationale in order to maintain the access of black kids to those schools. Over time, the real purpose of the effort, getting a better education for black kids, has gotten lost.

The social engineering exercise proposed by this blogger focuses on the wrong issue. If you want to improve the quality of education poor children receive, improving the quality of the school they attend is the answer, not shuffling kids around based on their socio-economic status (a status which is variable and can be changed by any number of factors). Before we embark on wide scale social engineering based on socio-economic status, why don't we try getting the basic stuff right, like making sure schools and teachers are calling students to perform to high standards. Lets make sure kids in poor areas have outstanding school facilities. Let's make sure we have an educational system in which the incentives for school performance are properly aligned, as opposed to the current system where teachers fight against measurement based on student outcomes and accountability for parents has to be mediated through unresponsive school bureaucracies.

The conservative policy answer isn't social engineering. Charter schools is the superior conservative policy answer here, but its not pushed as it should be because the GOP, the party of conservatives, doesn't view the major political constituency that benefits from charters (blacks) as necessary or essential to their aspirations for governance.