Effort in Education

More from the New Yorker, I’ve been picking it up the last few weeks and simply can’t recommend it enough. Douglas McGray writes on Green Dot, a charter school organisation in Los Angles and its energetic founder, Steve Barr. This one is locked down too, but fortunately Green Dot have put a scan of the article on their website here. Meanwhile, Malcolm Gladwell looks at how underdogs can succeed. Both I think are relevant to the ongoing education debate.Green Dot runs small charted high schools in LA, aiming for small autonomous schools with high parental involvement. The results are impressive: in some the poorest districts in Los Angeles it succeeds in sending 80% of its students to college. Its success has prompted a successful effort to take over a larger public school, Locke, split it and run it on the same lines. The focus of the article is on this effort and beyond.

There is a lot in the article (read the whole thing!) but I’ll pull out few threads here. Barr is a colourful character, and often embraces equally colourful language and hardball tactics, but he is aware of the need for compromise and the ability to deal with various interests in order to get what he wants:

    For instance, Barr runs the only large charter organization in the country that has embraced unionized teachers and a collectively bargained contract – an unnecessary hassle, if his aim was to run a few schools but a source of leverage for Green Dot’s main purpose, which is to push for city wide change.

Second, he is dealing with second level education in tough districts in the US, coping with situations much worse than even the worst schools here. The debate over the eleven plus often comes down to fatalism; if children miss their chance here then they are probably beyond help. Similar attitudes infect the US system:

    The toughest work in urban education today is what you do with failing high schools,” Duncan told me. These schools get less study and less attention from charter groups and reformers, most of whom feel that ninth grade is too late begin saving kids.

Green Dot demonstrates that these are a fallacies. The eleven plus skews the debate and consumes much thought and resources that should be looking at improving the entire system.

The link with Galdwell’s article comes in the idea that effort can outpace ability. Green Dot schools don’t select on ability, but prior to Locke they did require every student to have an advocate before allowing them entry to the lottery; this could be seen as a commitment by both to the necessary work. Gladwell outlines some scenarios whereby hard working teams out compete more talented opponents. It remains true that if the more talented team adopted similar tactics, they would likely win comfortably. But the fact is that they don’t because the application of that kind of effort is hard and the single minded willingness to apply it as rare as innate talent:

    It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them march to the sound of a fife-and-drum corps than it is to have them ride six hundred miles through the desert on the back of a camel. It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

With Locke, Green Dot has provide comprehensive access and while too early to judge, is finding life tougher in this environment:

    And when Locke’s test scores, their first since the takeover, come back this fall they are almost certain to be the lowest among Barr’s schools. Sully guesses that the school might see a small bounce, but anything more than that would surprise him

By focusing purely on ability, we are missing out lots of kids (and their families) who would be willing to put in extraordinary effort to get ahead but are simply denied the opportunity. Providing them with that opportunity with similar charter schools isn’t a silver bullet, and likely would still leave the toughest cases to be dealt with but it seems like an easily implemented solution in a sector dominated by intractable problems.

Finally, Galdwell speaks to the reaction of the establishment to those who would transgress establish norms:

    The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider. Why did the Ivy League schools of the nineteen-twenties limit the admission of Jewish immigrants? Because they were the establishment and the Jews were the insurgents, scrambling and pressing and playing by immigrant rules that must have seemed to the Wasp élite of the time to be socially horrifying. “Their accomplishment is well over a hundred per cent of their ability on account of their tremendous energy and ambition,” the dean of Columbia College said of the insurgents from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side. He wasn’t being complimentary. Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David.

Is there any denying the education debate has since its share of these types of attitudes? You won’t have to go far; simply check any Slugger topic on the issue.