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Opinion: Fire. Aim. Ready. Why School Reformers Miss the Target

The war of words about school reform makes meaningful dialogue impossible.

Reformers are a funny lot, agitating to change things that won't solve the problems they fuss and thunder about. "Poor black and Latino kids trapped in failed public schools" is their battle cry, but they advance proposals that deal with that durable problem only at the margins.

Today's faddists who push school choice and teacher accountability join a long and undistinguished line of earlier, failed reformers. Oh, they may have changed policies and funded their nostrums, but the problems of children trapped in public schools were little affected.

How is it, after almost a half century of national debate about the achievement gap, we keep aiming at the wrong targets?

In 1965, a little-known assistant labor secretary sent a policy paper to the Johnson White House entitled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." Daniel P. Moynihan, an inveterate scanner of data tables, was alarmed by the rapid growth in births to single black mothers, particularly in northeastern cities. He cited the effects on black males of high unemployment and of black women assuming a larger role in supporting their families. The Moynihan Report, as it is forever known, urged unspecified national action to counter the then-growing bifurcation in the black community between a rapidly increasing middle class and welfare-dependent fatherless families in ghetto neighborhoods.

The report noted that the family is the social unit that nurtures and prepares young children for school and employment. It is a responsibility best discharged by two parents. Otherwise, the result will be a concentration of poorly educated, unemployed males.

The response from the civil rights movement and the then-influential liberal base of the Democratic Party was outrage. Moynihan was personally attacked and accused of "blaming the victim." He was shunned by the Johnson administration, civil rights leaders (with the exception of Martin Luther King, Jr.), and most liberals.

The effects of this episode went far beyond Moynihan (who did just fine with the rest of his life). The firefight over his report silenced a generation of scholars, researchers, politicians, and editorial writers on the issues of black family, poverty, and their relation to education. It took almost quarter century before a black scholar, William Julius Wilson, wrote The Truly Disadvantaged about the urban underclass. Now, at least, the connection between extreme poverty and educational outcomes could be drawn.

The need to focus on poverty and its effects has only increased in recent years. Yet, the climate for a robust discussion is still not in place, here in New Jersey or nationally. In the face of the well-financed drumbeat that better teacher accountability and more parental choice can pretty much close the achievement gap, there is open hostility to aiming at the indisputable cause of that gap, concentrated poverty.

Recently, the Reverend Reginald Jackson, the powerful president of the Black Minister's Council attacked as "sinister" and "destructive" the suggestion in a NJ Spotlight posting that poverty is the best-proven explanation for the academic underperformance of kids in city schools. Just to bring up the subject, apparently, is enough to suggest that "poverty is destiny" and that opponents of the current reform agenda are content to make black and Latino kids "disposable."

The reform agenda deflects attention from what is documented beyond argument. Children from poor families are less likely to be exposed to books, stories, letters, numbers, and words. Hence, they enter kindergarten one to two years behind their middle class peers in vocabulary and general knowledge. They lose a month over the summer; by fourth grade they are two years behind; by 12th grade the gap is four years (if they don't drop out). The results are worst in schools where poor children go to school only with other poor children, the case in chronically failing schools. It is no coincidence that as long as lists of failed schools have been made in New Jersey, Camden and Newark's South Ward make up about 40 percent of the list.

We have a lot of evidence about what works best. Start early. Give three- and four-year-old children from poor families two years of high-quality preschool. Follow this with a course of intensive early literacy instruction in grades K-3. A kid who does not read at grade level in third grade has only a one in seven chance of ever reading at grade level! Strong readers can be educated; non-readers cannot.

It's easy to assert that early literacy should be the highest priority, but there is nothing easy about changing what happens in "poor-only" schools. It requires relentless focus, lots of help for teachers, continuous adjustment in the instruction based on each student's progress, and spending as much time as necessary to reach the goal. Too many educators do not want to take on such complex changes. The NJ Department of Education is not equipped to provide districts with the advice and support they need to take on early literacy. That does not mean that early literacy should be sloughed off.

Instead of scurrying for the unproven or very limited options proposed by reformers, we should build on the strong evidence that early literacy can work. The achievement gap among third and fourth graders is being narrowed dramatically in districts like Union City, Elizabeth, East Orange, Perth Amboy, West New York, and Long Branch -- all districts that concentrate on connecting preschool to the K-3 years with intensive literacy instruction.

At least, let's be able to talk about what works, even if it doesn't conform to the latest fad.

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