Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Big Distraction
The Times this past Tuesday included a house editorial on a report I co-authored for the Community Service Society of New York, where I'm a Senior Fellow. (I'm not sure what this means exactly, but I do think it sounds cool.) The study looks at the importance of the GED in New York City, as well as the myriad and severe problems pertaining to test preparation classes and the administration of the exam itself that contribute to New York State's worst-in-the-nation pass rate. As we detail in the report, it's New York City's abysmal rate--perennially under 50 percent, compared to a national average around 71 percent--that explains why the state ranks last.

The editorial accurately characterized our findings and made what I thought was a powerful case for taking up the measures we suggested, but what I found interesting and disturbing were the comments that readers made in response. Here's a sampling, all just from the first page of comments:

Is it reasonable to spend more resources on those who failed to take advantage of free education until the age of 18? At what point do we shift the burden of responsibility to the individual?
Undoubtedly, big improvements are needed in the New York K-12 school system and other systems serving low-income people of color. However, I think it is legitimate to ask whether the K-12 school system failed the students or whether the students failed the school. If we don't expect students to be somewhat responsible for their own learning, I don't think the situation will ever improve. I think the authors of the report might read President Obama's recent speech to school children. That talk contained the sensible message that when it comes to one's education there is no substitute for personal responsibility and hard work.
[It is offensive to continually blame K-12 education for "failing" those students. I thought we were encouraging personal responsibility? Did these students not fail themselves largely by dropping out or not taking school seriously?
[A]s a public school teacher, I can't help but be irritated by the statement by the ETS that these GED seekers "were failed by our public school system." In some cases, that may be true. In others, the students themselves may have been responsible for their OWN failure. There is only so much schools and teachers can do, and at some point our students make their own choices and decisions that we are later blamed for.

The implication is that the people in pursuit of a GED have forfeited their claim on further assistance because they're lazy, stupid, and/or immoral: they had their chance, and they blew it, so screw 'em.

A few years ago, one of the big vogues in public policy philanthropy was for foundations to bring in message consultants and PR gurus to train people like me in how to frame the issues we worked on and the studies we produced. Perhaps the big takeaway from these sessions, which I generally found about 10 percent useful and 90 percent schlock, was to characterize the struggles of people on the economic margins as mostly a result of systemic and impersonal forces rather than their own poor choices and deficiencies of character. This was necessary, the message-shapers explained, because cultural notions of rugged individualism stretch so deep that they color how Americans process information. Unless you put it all on the system, most readers and listeners will instinctively arrive at the conclusion that the problems of the poor and marginalized stem from their own personal faults.

Of course, anyone with eyes to see understands that's it's both/and, not either/or. There were plenty of kids in the public schools I attended growing up who finished high school and went on to college despite academic inclinations and aptitudes no stronger than many of the 70,000 or so New Yorkers who sit for adult education classes every year. (That number, by the way, is a tiny fraction of those who could gain from such services, but that's another point for another time.) In a real sense, if the non-grads in New York City "were failed" by their schools, the equally able grads of Cheltenham Township "were successed" (not a word, I know) by theirs. Probably an even more powerful factor into the outcomes was the presence and values and attentiveness of the two groups of parents. The individuals in both groups bear some responsibility for their outcomes--one can always "choose" to take actions toward overcoming adversity, or alternatively just screw up again and again until one's life is a ruin--but not all. One outside consultancy I sometimes work with, 2Revolutions, eloquently characterizes this conflation of factors as "choice plus chance."

The way we in this report, and I would say me in almost all the work I do these days, try to get around the "who's at fault?" discussion is to focus on the reader's, which is to say the community's, self-interest. We included, on p. 9, a great number that my co-author got from a briefing he attended in March: over the course of their working lifetimes (ages 18-64), New York City residents who never completed high school or earned a GED represent an average net cost to the city's treasury of almost $135,000 for things like locking them up, sheltering them, and feeding them; those with just a high school degree or equivalency represent an average net contribution of more than $190,000. In other words, helping a 24 year-old earn her GED--something that costs maybe $7,000 if you go the gold-plated route--can represent a swing of $300,000 for the city treasury over the next forty years.

Considering that spectacular return on investment, the argument against taking action sounds a lot weaker. If you can present a compelling case for why the investment will achieve the desired result, it's essentially unanswerable... at least in a rational world where the urge to punish people for their alleged faults of character is weaker than the desire not to cut off one's (fiscal) nose to spite one's (moral) face.


Anonymous said...

Dave -

I agree that making the return on investment argument can help a city invest it its own best interest. But, speaking as someone who actually tutored GED seekers for a while, I have to say that the personal motivation issue is unbeatable. I would never argue that cities shouldn't make GED programs available and affordable. But once you do that, not everybody's going to sign up and/or see it through.

In general, I have concluded that educational failures in this country say a lot more about the parents of the kids involved, and the kids themselves, than about the schools or the teachers.

David said...

I agree, and that's something I think about every time I get into ed policy issues. Just not sure what to do about it, or even what we can do about it. There's no shortcut to cultural change, which is really what's required here.