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Thompson: Robert Putnam and Ending the Education Civil War

The conservative Fordham Institute's A Conversation with Robert Putnam foreshadows the way that our education civil war could end. Fresh from his conversation with President Barack Obama, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, and E.J. Dionne, Robert Putnam last week discussed his new book, Our Kids, which could be read, in part, as a call for deescalating a full range of political fratricides. 

Surprisingly, Putnam had only recently learned of the bitter battle of output-driven, market-driven school reformers versus teachers and our unions.  Putnam wants to tackle the "Opportunity Gap," but apparently he was unaware of the baggage attached to those words. We teachers who oppose corporate school reform seek a campaign to close the Opportunity Gap.  Data-driven reformers dismiss such a goal as an "Excuse."

I doubt that either Putnam or President Obama fully realize that the goal of equal opportunity has been derided by reformers as "Low Expectations," meaning that those who embrace it supposedly aren't committed to meeting measurable outputs, or test score growth targets. Under the President's School Improvement Grant, a teacher can be dismissed for merely expressing support for Putnam's goal and recommendations, thus being labeled a "culture killer" who doesn't focus solely on "outcomes" i.e. test scores.

Fordham's Mike Petrilli kept a straight face when telling Putnam that he would provide research by CREDO and others that would document the better outcomes produced by charters over the last seven years. Putnam graciously agreed to look at Petrilli's information but he said that his reading of the evidence says that sorting is the problem, and choice is not the answer.

Moreover, Putnam replied that none of the poor kids profiled in Our Kids would have been better off if they just had better information about school options. Putnam concludes that socio-economic segregation, not schools, is the cause of our growing Opportunity Gap.  

In contrast to Petrilli, a liberal or neo-liberal reformer like Arne Duncan would likely have stayed on message, ignored reality, and tried to deny that charters "cream" or accept only as many of the most challenging students as they can handle. After all, a liberal reformer couldn't admit to leaving the poorest kids behind or stop pretending that test-driven accountability is not unfair to teachers and students in the schools where it is harder to meet growth targets.

But, guess what Petrilli did?

Petrilli asked what is wrong with focusing on working class and less poor kids. Why, he asked, do (liberal?) reformers say that the poorest students deserve all of the attention.  The conservative reformer thus implicitly acknowledges the obvious - that high-performing charters don't serve the "same" kids as neighborhood schools. 

Even better, Petrilli didn't challenge Putnam's explanation of why he rejects the blame game. The baggage brought to school by children who have endured trauma causes the disorder and violence that undermines  instruction. Of course, if reformers had done what Petrilli did when he basically admitted that we in inner city neighborhood schools face greater challenges - and when he did not challenge Putnam's failure to indict teachers - we would not be bogged down in this education civil war.  

So, after he passed up the chance to argue with rightwing and/or leftwing opponents, what were Putnam's solutions?  First, he rejects "triage." He won't leave behind the kids who are suffering the most. Putnam calls for high-quality early education. He tells the truth that too many under-the-gun educators are afraid to utter. High-quality early education is hard, and it is not cheap. But, creating high schools wasn't cheap either. We need to make the investments necessary to tackle the Opportunity Gap when children are young and most malleable.

Putnam voices support for socio-economic integration, while also acknowledging its difficulties. He recommends the simpler, but not inexpensive Teacher Transfer Initiative. Putnam endorses incentives to attract the best teachers to the toughest schools. He doesn't mention the high-stakes testing stick as a shortcut to equity.  Putnam also calls for the restoration of extracurricular activities.

Petrilli pushed back a little, citing reformers who argue that American schools should narrow their focus to intellectual content, follow the European and Asian examples, and get rid of sports. But, that softball counter-argument goes to Putnam's wheelhouse, and he knocks it out of the park. As is explained in Our Kids, sports, band, and school clubs are deeply rooted in American culture. They build "soft skills," work habits, self-discipline, teamwork, leadership, and civic engagement. Devoting an entire section of Our Kids to extracurricular activities, he explains that they are strongly associated with school outcomes and upward mobility.

Unfortunately the extracurricular gap also extends to poor students.  Fifty years ago, it was understood that football, chorus, and debate should be offered to all students, but now affluent schools are twice as likely to offer extracurricular opportunities. The Opportunity Gap has been made worse by budget belt-tightening and high-stakes testing.

And, that brings us to key points mentioned by Putnam at Fordham which are further explored in his book. The enemy is the stress created by poverty, not unions. The problem is the lack of social capital and the lack of trust, not the need to treat teachers as untrustworthy villains. The increase in socio-economic segregation is the challenge, not the answer. Finally, we can't defeat the educational legacy of poverty while continuing to fight each other.

But, at Fordham and in Our Kids, Putnam did not focus on defeating political opponents. His message seems to work with conservative school reformers. I'm betting that it will also resonate with President Obama.-JT(@drjohnthompson) 


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I'm impressed with his message, but it's not going to work with anyone who stands to benefit from the largesse of the billionaires. As always, follow the money.

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