The following essay is written by Carmel Borg from Malta, a country that has many more equitable provisions in place than the United States. Recently they made the decision to eliminate “tracking” or “streaming” of students based on educators’ perceptions of ability and potential.
Bolded words within the essay are emphasized by me, as they seem particularly relevant to the U.S. context.
No ‘Quick Fix’ School Panacea
Professor Carmel Borg, University of Malta
In 1967, eight boys from Barbiana, under the tutorship of Don Lorenzo Milani, wrote a scathing review of the education system in Italy. Angered at the way the education system had rubbished thousands of children living precariously, they intuitively concluded that schools were more interested in force-feediing inert knowledge and in tripping students through a mindless assessment regime than in liberating disadvantaged children through ‘powerful knowledge’, that is, curricular experiences which enable citizens to critically engage the world as much as they competently compute and read and write the word. Backed by national award-winning quantitative data, the Tuscan students empirically affirmed that there is a strong correlation between socio-economic status and educational achievement. Almost fifty years and billions of research money later, the same conclusion holds: income inequalities and gaps in social and cultural capital are correlated with differentiated levels of achievement and cognitive capital, with low socio-economic status students at the receiving end of the achievement continuum.
People, including newspaper commentators, react differently to the achievement gaps registered locally and elsewhere. Some conclude that these gaps are natural and inevitable. Others claim that low achievement mirrors lack of parental interest in and appreciation for matters that are educational in nature. Many opt for blaming it on schools, teachers, teacher trainers and education policy makers. Some equate educational achievement with genetics.
The literature on the intersection of socio-ecomomic status and educational achievement is vast, complex and, at times, contradictory. However, a number of facts can be safely assertained:
- Fact 1: Poverty does interfere with educational achievement. PISA results of the 2009 reading tests, albeit not ‘absolute’ and requiring critical interrogation, reveal that, among 15-year-olds in the top 14 countries, students with lower economic and social status had far lower test scores than their more advantaged counterparts within every country.
- Fact 2: The right education policy decsions do influence achievement gaps. Comparative literature stemming from PISA studies reveals that the best-performing countries are adopting policies that contribute substantially to equity in education. Policiy lessons learned from the highest ranking countries include: limiting early tracking and streaming and postponing academic selection; providing strong education for all, giving priority to early childhood provision and basic schooling; strengthening the links between school and home to help disadvantaged parents help their children to learn; identifying and providing systematic help to those who fall behind at school and reduce year repetition; directing resources to the students with the greatest needs, so that the poorer communities have at least the same level of provision; responding to diversity and providing for the successful inclusion of migrants and minorities within mainstream education; setting concrete targets for more equity, particularly related to low school attainment and dropouts; managing school choice; in upper secondary education, providing attractive alternatives, removing dead ends and preventing dropout; offering second chances to gain from education.
- Fact 3: Schools may defy the odds and rapture cycles of low academic achievement. The school effectiveness movement has for long insisted that schools can make a difference if they provide enabling environments and meaningful opportunities to learn. Some of the variables that the school effectiveness movement has studied and provided empirical evidence for their effectiveness include: high expectations for students; teachers’ and adminstrators’ opportunity to engage in ongoing professional development; collective instructional leadership; and student time-on-task. PIRLS underscored teacher experience, the disciplinary climate of the classroom and parental support as the most important variables, while PISA studies highlighted student-teacher ratio, teacher qualifications, resources, teacher morale and commitment, teacher-student realtions and disciplinary climate as variables that can make a difference in the life of all students.
- Fact 4: Schools can make a difference but they cannot ‘fix’ societies and quickly so. Research conducted by the American Statistical Association concludes that the impact of teachers on their students’ standardized test scores is 1% – 14% of the total score. Thus, systematic campaigns against teachers, blaming them for students’ failure, when most of the variables impacting students’ standardized test scores may lie outside the perimeter of schools, are problematic and empirically unsustainable.
Backed by solid empirical evidence, I can safely conclude that low academic ahievement is socially and economically partial and that the cycle of systemic and systematic underperformance can be raptured. Believing that schools and education can eliminate social inequalities is politically naive and ethically irresponsible. Interrogating the widening, global and local, social and economic gaps and the undemocratic concentration of wealth and power consitute a good moral start. Urgent political action in favour of individuals, family units, and communities with a history of poverty and precariousness, community-based action by people who have the intellectual preparation and the skills to engage productively with the disadvantaged, and schools that serve as enabling community centres, are three indispensable actions of a just society that serves the vulnerable just-in-time.