Rothstein v Walcott: Will Strengthening Families Strengthen Schools, or, Is Accountability the Key to Closing the Achievement Gap?

 “If you want to know about the corner murderers and their victims in Baltimore, don’t ask a cop, ask a teacher.”

The Wire, Year 4.

The Center for New York City Affairs (Milano) at the New School University has issued a Report and hosted a forum, Strengthening Schools by Strengthening Families: Community Strategies to Reverse Chronic Absenteeism in Early Grades and Improve Supports for Children and Families. 
The Report  is a “must read.”
Last year, more than 90,000 children in grades K through 5 (more than 20 percent of enrollment) missed at least one month of school. In high poverty neighborhoods, the number was far higher, approaching one-third of primary grade students.

Key findings of the attendance analysis include: 

  • Last  year, in 12 of New York City’s 32 school districts, well over 25 percent of primary school children were chronically absent from school, missing more than 10 percent of the school year.
  • In five of these districts, fully 30 percent of the primary school children, kindergarten through fifth grade, were chronically absent.
  • In six of these districts, between 8 and 11 percent of primary school children missed 38 or more days of school during the 2007/2008 school year.
  • And in 123 individual New York City primary schools at least 30 percent of the children were chronically absent.
The DOE has used “average daily attendance” as their metric, the Report shows us that “chronic absenteeism,” (defined as absent more than 10% of the school year) unearths a startling problem that the DOE has been lax in addressing.
Not surprisingly schools with the highest levels of “chronic absenteeism,” are schools in the poorest sections of the city. The charts and maps in the Report cover the entire city, and, has a number of recommendations
The report suggests an approach for targeting schools with the greatest need, describing a possible structure for supporting practical assessments of the problem, followed by effective working partnerships between principals and skilled community-based organizations.
The forum that accompanied the release of the Report featured Richard Rothstein and Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott.
Rothstein, the author of Class and Schools, and a signer of the Broader, Bolder Agenda, avers, “social class differences can be narrowed, not eliminated by effective schools.”
He points to asthma rates four times higher in high poverty schools than in middle class schools, the availability of medical care to middle class parents and the difficultly in obtaining care for poor parents.
Rothstein concludes, “…it is a ‘fanciful notion’ that school reform alone can be used as a lever to narrow the achievement gap … in fact … it has had perverse consequences.”
Deputy Mayor Walcott suggested flipping the title to “Strengthening Families by Strengthening Schools” and lauded the Bloomberg/Klein policies. He praised the DOE and agreed that there must be a greater focus on “pockets,” and went on to cite a long list of Klein programs.
He emphasized that “…challenges cannot be excuses … we can never accept poverty as an excuse,” and concluded by referring the audience to the web  site Education Equality Project.
A panel, including a DOE official, a principal and two reps of organizations with wide experience in communities discussed the Report.
As Rothstein pointed out, signing both agendas is a political response. The Bush administration and their acolytes have no interest in addressing poverty, after all, the marketplace will resolve poverty. The current economic cataclysm destroys their deeply flawed, cynical model. Competition: vouchers and charter schools, and a cold, unfeeling accountability, a strict schools management agenda is as faulty as the mindless tools that have driven the world economy into chaos.
Schools are part of a larger community, a community that must seek a coordinated approach: health and medical services, housing, jobs and safe and secure neighborhoods are part of any education initiative. To do less is tragic, and criminal.

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