Educating the disadvantaged - two models.

Author:Wax, Amy L.


Rising social and economic inequality has become a national pre-occupation. Lower and upper class communities have separated geographically and diverged in family structure, civic participation, work patterns, and criminality. (1) Disparities in educational attainment are both a source and effect of these trends. (2) Children growing up in poor families and neighbor hoods, including many blacks and Hispanics, complete less schooling and acquire fewer academic skills than those from more affluent backgrounds. (3) Gaps in academic outcomes by socioeconomic status ("SES") and race remain a stubborn feature of American life.

The origins of existing achievement gradients, and potential strategies for mitigating them, have been the subject of research and study over decades, generating a complex theoretical and empirical literature. Numerous innovations and programs, involving large expenditures of public and private funds, have been devoted to increasing and equalizing achievement. (4) Despite sustained efforts on multiple fronts, SES gaps in educational indicators have barely budged overall, resisting repeated waves of school reform and myriad initiatives designed to improve prospects for low income students. (5)

The aim of this Article is to compare and contrast two approaches to addressing inequalities in K-12 education that have recently received wide popular attention and strong professional advocacy. The first seeks to reduce the number of high poverty schools, which tend to be segregated both by class and race, by dispersing students from poor families to educational settings with predominantly middle class or affluent students. So-called economic integration initiatives have gained traction in a number of public school districts nationwide. (6) The second type of effort is directed at drastically altering the character of the schools disadvantaged students attend. So-called "no excuses" K-12 charter programs create a high-intensity, demanding, all-encompassing atmosphere designed to work a comprehensive improvement in poor students' academic prospects as well as their outlook, habits, and behavior. (7)

Both initiatives represent a response to the disappointing results achieved by prior efforts to make headway against racial and economic inequalities in learning and achievement. Beginning with Brown v. Board of Education (8) in 1954, nationwide efforts to dismantle segregation and integrate schools through anti-discrimination lawsuits, although occasionally achieving modest success, have ultimately foundered, producing neither dramatic racial integration nor significant improvements in academic outcomes for black students. (9) A long and growing list of factors have undermined formal and informal efforts to achieve significant racial integration of public schools nationwide: rapidly changing demographics, white flight to the suburbs, increasing residential segregation by class and race, parents' strong preference for neighborhood schools, a tenacious tradition of local control of public education, the shortcomings and limitations inherent in judicial oversight of complex institutions, (10) and the growing recognition that past school segregation is not the main cause of, nor integration the likely cure for, black students' present academic problems. (11) In the wake of these demographic and political realities and litigations' limited success, lawsuits extending over decades have almost all been abandoned or phased out by the courts. (12)

Legal efforts to correct the effects of past official discrimination were followed by sporadic attempts, initiated by local governments and school districts, to reduce school segregation through the adoption of race-conscious school assignment plans. (13) In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. I, (14) the United States Supreme Court turned back these local initiatives. There the Court invalidated race-conscious plans in Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky, finding that using race to achieve racial balance in K-12 schools was impermissible under the Equal Protection Clause. (15)

In the wake of these failures, attention turned to "in place" enrichment programs designed to upgrade and improve public schools that serve low income children in general, which tend to be concentrated in heavily minority areas. A longstanding national initiative is Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, (16) which funnels money and resources to high poverty schools in an attempt to produce greater equality across districts and to supplement educational offerings for disadvantaged children. (17) A more recent legislative effort, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, (18) relied chiefly on block grants to states and localities backed up by a detailed set of mandates and goals for teacher quality, curriculum, and student performance. (19) In addition, the Obama administration devoted over $7 billion dollars to a School Improvement Grant ("SIG") Program designed to supplement the funding and resources for distressed students and the schools they attend. (20) Although working modest improvements in some cases, these initiatives have not measurably enhanced low-income students' learning overall. (21) Nor have they significantly narrowed race and class achievement gaps, which remain substantial. (22)

Given these disappointing results, policymakers have continued to search for ways to improve academic outcomes and life chances for minority and low income students. Two important approaches have emerged. In the wake of the Supreme Court's hostility to race-conscious integration and in recognition of the disproportionate number of minority, and especially black, children, from poor families, localities have adopted plans to integrate schools by social class instead of race. Alternatively, "no excuses" charter schools have sprung up in a number of urban, heavily minority districts around the country, targeting their efforts at the populations of disadvantaged students in those locations.

Economic integration plans and "no excuses" schools share important common threads. First, both rest on the well-documented fact that children from deprived backgrounds (including a disproportionate number of minority students, and especially blacks) have, on average, fewer academic skills than affluent students, and have more trouble meeting academic demands. (23) Second, both are grounded in a growing appreciation, validated by some research in education and social science, that non-academic, characterological traits, such as persistence, initiative, ambition, self-discipline, self-control, attentiveness, organizational skill, and the ability to delay gratification, are important to academic and life success. (24) Finally, both models assume, whether tacitly or overtly, that, as compared to middle class counterparts, the average low income student is lacking in these so-called "non-cognitive" attributes, and that these deficits can express themselves in attitudes and behaviors that interfere with learning. (25)

In light of these insights, both "no excuses" schools and income integration initiatives operate on the understanding that learning cannot be separated from proper socialization and good habits. It follows that raising the academic profile of disadvantaged students and enhancing their gloomy life prospects requires improving not just their level of academic skill, but also their outlook, attitudes, and behavior. Although both models target academic and personal deficits, they differ crucially in their methods. As elaborated more fully below, "no excuses" schools are committed to a detailed program of behavior modification and active acculturation. In contrast, economic integration seeks to improve students through a passive process of immersion, osmosis, and contagion. That model assumes that removing poor students from high poverty schools and placing them in a more middle class environment will automatically lead them to adopt the higher expectations and more functional habits of their better off classmates.


    The "no excuses" model sets up charter schools designed to actively address the attributes thought to hold back low income students through a hands-on, paternalistic model of behavioral modification and direction. (26) As funded and designed mainly by private entrepreneurs, these schools have proliferated nationwide in the past two decades. (27) Although differing in precise methods and location, they draw their students chiefly from low income communities, and the great majority are heavily or exclusively populated by disadvantaged minorities. (28) Most are modeled on the KIPP, or Knowledge is Power Program, academies, a nationwide chain of about 150 schools operating mostly at the elementary and middle school level. (29) Schools that represent variations on this theme include the New York Success Academies, the Harlem Children's Zone school, the Amistad Academy in Boston, the Christo Ray Jesuit School in Chicago, and the SEED Academy boarding school in Washington, D.C. (30)

    The hallmark of "no excuses" schools is a frankly paternalistic and unapologetic commitment to acculturating low income students to the achievement-oriented habits and norms typical of their middle class and affluent counterparts. (31) That project is motivated by the belief that low-income children will benefit from a stable, highly structured environment in which conventional, bourgeois behaviors are actively endorsed, expected, and demanded. (32) The list of these schools' common features is long and detailed. On the academic side, they prescribe a uniform, rigorous pre-college curriculum, with little student discretion in course of study. (33) Most extend academic instruction through a longer school day, week, and year, with activities and assignments scheduled throughout the summer months. (34) Basic skill acquisition...

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