Thursday, September 1, 2011

Joe's Take: Whose Child?

Who should shape the worldview and moral code of children -- parents or the state? That issue, which dates back at least to Plato, was raised anew by the recent story about the New Jersey school district that, to the distress of parents, assigned books with steamy sex scenes and vulgar language for summer reading.

When societies debate the role of parents and government in raising children, schools are often at the center of the swirl, and for good reason. Schools are powerful conveyors of values and culture, transmitting an ethos that can support or erode what is taught at home. There is justifiable cause for concern when public schools fill the minds of children with images, words, and ideas at variance with the values of their parents.

In a talk two years back at the National Press Club, John E. Coons, professor emeritus at Berkeley Law, listed some of the topics about which children can receive conflicting messages at school: sex, euthanasia, animal rights, war, the environment, abortion, gay marriage, health care, Al Gore movies, scientism, Columbus, and corporate greed. And that’s just for starters!

Schools, said Coons, “teach a rich lottery of values, and to the extent that this is true, the child of the not-so-rich parent takes moral pot luck.” He argued that providing parents with greater choice in education would enable them to choose the values to which their children are exposed and help them ensure that what is taught at school comports with what they teach at home.

Thirty-five years ago, Stephen Arons, professor of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, struck the same theme of providing parents choice as a means of protection against state intrusion on their right to raise children in accordance with their beliefs and values. In a classic essay for Harvard Educational Review in 1976 titled “The Separation of School and State: Pierce Reconsidered,” Arons wrote that when a public school attempts “to inculcate values that a particular family may find abhorrent to its own basic beliefs and way of life,” the family is faced with the choice of “(1) abandoning its beliefs in order to gain the benefit of a state-subsidized education, or (2) forfeiting the proffered government benefit in order to preserve the family belief structure from government interference.” There’s a bit of a problem, however. “Conditioning the provision of government benefits upon the sacrifice of fundamental rights” is unconstitutional.

Arons concludes that “compulsory education may have to be revised to eliminate its economically discriminatory nature and to preserve freedom of belief for families in search of adequate education.” No doubt many parents in the offending New Jersey school district would welcome such preservation of their freedom right now.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director) 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Joe’s Take: Marshmallows

More than once I’ve heard David Brooks tell the marshmallow story. It’s about an experiment conducted in the late 1960s by psychology professor Walter Mischel in which pre-K children were given the chance either to consume a marshmallow (or cookie or candy) right away on the spot or to delay consumption in exchange for a guaranteed second marshmallow minutes later.

As anyone who knows four-year-olds might guess, some children ate the treat within seconds of the offer, some held out a bit longer, while others (some 30 percent) were able to control their desires for the experiment’s full 15-minute duration.

Though the power of the treats was readily apparent, it would be years before Mischel realized the full significance of the study. As the children were tracked over ensuing decades, it turns out that this extraordinarily simple measure of the capacity to delay gratification at age four was a powerful predictor of behavior later in life. In high school, the short delayers had an average SAT score 210 points lower than the long delayers. They also had more trouble paying attention and keeping friends. As adults they had higher body-mass indexes and incidents of drug abuse.

Now lest you think that future success is entirely determined by one’s skill in postponing gratification at age four, Mischel’s work and related research (engagingly described in this piece by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker) shows there is a learned component to self-control. Children can be taught how to do it, and practice can make it habitual, which brings us back to David Brooks.

In his latest book, The Social Animal, Brooks devotes considerable space to the role played by institutions and communities in forming character -- the habits of mind and behavior that shape a person’s core and set the stage for success. Self-control is among those habits, and Brooks correctly calls the trait “one of the essential ingredients of a fulfilling life.”

Now it’s no secret that many religious and independent schools put a premium on instilling self-discipline in students: paying attention in class, attending to the task at hand, doing homework without excuses, refraining from disruptive outbursts, behaving courteously during assemblies, not speaking out of turn, and on and on. Students get a whole lot of practice and encouragement when it comes to regulating their own behavior. “Character,” says Brooks, ”emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences.” Families, schools, religious institutions -- all with their particular social and moral capital -- contribute to the mix. “It is very hard to build self-control alone,” he writes.

Just as many parents provide children opportunities to learn to postpone gratification (no TV until your homework is done; no dessert unless you finish your dinner), religious and independent schools help children develop a work ethic and a sense of self-discipline in pursuit of a higher purpose that sets the groundwork for success and accomplishment later in life. They instill routines of order and respect that build, exercise, and strengthen enduring traits of character. Brooks calls the rules and habits of self-control promulgated by institutions “external scaffolds that penetrate deep inside us.” Indeed, the scaffolds of discipline that private schools provide help students resist instant marshmallows for a more substantial and lasting good.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Joe's Take: Sleeper Effects

The American Enterprise Institute recently hosted a discussion on a fascinating study by David Figlio of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Figlio’s study concludes that the Florida tax credit scholarship program has sparked improvement in the public schools that face new competition from nearby private schools.

We typically think of school choice as helping students who transfer out of public schools. This study showed positive effects for the students left behind. To sweeten the pie even more, the program also resulted in savings for taxpayers and higher levels of school satisfaction among participating parents.

But for me, the discussion’s key comment came from panelist Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution. Recalling that a significant outcome of the opportunity scholarship program in the District of Columbia was the higher graduation rates for scholarship recipients, Whitehurst suggested that school choice programs might deliver “sleeper effects,” not immediately measureable in math and reading scores. He said studies of some choice schools show outcomes in “soft areas, motivationally related areas, rather than skill-related areas” whose results may be seen in “aspirational differences later on.”

Discussant Jane Hannaway of the Urban Institute reinforced Whitehurst’s point, calling test scores “only partial and imperfect measures of the learning that goes on in school.” And in a similar vein, Nada Eissa, an associate professor at Georgetown University, said that in evaluating whether voucher programs are any good, these deeper effects “are the really important outcomes.” She added, “By focusing only on test scores, we may just be missing a whole lot of what’s important from the social perspective.”

I presume the panelists were talking about the effect schools can have in cultivating a culture of learning and instilling in students the desire to succeed. Some schools promote the obligation to put one’s gifts and abilities to good use in the pursuit of life’s purpose. These are the deeper lessons, the sleeper effects, the lifelong results of religious and independent schools that a short-term scale score in reading or math cannot even begin to capture. Parents seem to intuitively grasp the essential values involved. The AEI discussion is a hopeful sign that researchers are starting to do the same.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Joe’s Take: Not an Even Swap

“School’s Out, Forever,” a recent article in The New York Times by David Gonzalez captures with great compassion the heartrending story surrounding the closing of St. Martin of Tours School in the Bronx. Gonzalez brings a unique perspective, having graduated from the school 40 years ago this month. He explains how the school offered a sanctuary in a neighborhood ravaged by “gang fights, racial unrest and crack wars.” In the midst of mayhem, the school managed to propel students to success. But its benefits were more than academic. The school built character and, through instruction and example, taught students how to live. Gonzalez remembers the “sacrifices made happily and gifts given freely by women religious,” recalling how “[t]hrough word and deed they taught us the works of mercy: to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and educate the ignorant.”

Unfortunately, the closing of priceless educational gems like St. Martin’s is playing out in cities across the country. In the Archdiocese of New York alone, 26 elementary schools are slated to shut down this month. The National Catholic Educational Association reports that the past decade has seen the number of Catholic schools in the country decline by 1,166 –- an astounding loss of opportunity for families and children.

Part of the narrative behind the closings has been the rise in charter schools. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that from 1999 to 2008, the number of students enrolled in public charter schools climbed from 340,000 to 1.4 million, while during roughly the same period (1999-2009) the number of students in private schools dropped from 6.0 million to 5.5 million. Charter schools gained students, and private schools lost them. Of course, enrollment demographics present a complicated scenario, and no one is suggesting a student-for-student transfer from private schools to charters. But in certain regions and communities, there is no question that some parents have swapped one sector for the other.

The problem is the trade is not an even one -- not for students, parents, or society. For starters, private schools have a history, a proven record of performance; they are not novice upstarts. Further, private schools are free of excessive government control that can stifle effectiveness and compromise a school’s unique identity. What’s more, private schools can establish a certain kind of culture and shared community that charter schools cannot. As David Gonzalez suggests, they strive to instill in students a sense of mission and service, a call to act selflessly for a greater good. The faith and values that explicitly drive so many private schools are simply off limits in charter schools.

Finally, there’s a major public policy distinction between the two sectors: the source of funding. Every student who switches from private to public represents a huge cost to taxpayers, so for any growth in charter schools at the expense of private schools the public foots the full bill. Perhaps that’s why, in this time of tight budgets, so many states are looking to expand genuine school choice by providing modest financial incentives to help parents select private schools, thereby easing the burden on neighborhood public schools and sparing taxpayers the full cost of educating the child. The bonus is that parents are provided proven, effective options –- the kind of life-changing opportunity that David Gonzalez had.