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Skoolboy Strikes Again: Research on Schools, Neighborhoods and Communities (& Value-Added Bonus!)

AERA President-Elect Carol Lee moderated a Division G Vice-Presidential session Thursday entitled Research on Schools, Neighborhoods and Communities: Implications for Research Methods on Social Contexts. The participants were Shirley Brice Heath, Kris Gutierrez, Margaret Beale Spencer, and Steve Raudenbush. Heath and Gutierrez emphasized the cultural features of contexts in their remarks. Heath argued that a central task of educational research is studying the co-occurrence of contexts with specific behaviors. She made a case for quantitative data records that allow for comparisons across contexts and time periods, using a study of the role of language in the context of young children coming to think of themselves as scientists as an example.

Kris Gutierrez argued for the importance of studying the resources and constraints of ecologies that constitute families’ everyday lives, especially in nondominant communities. A key example she drew on was the difficulty of understanding behaviors without a deep understanding of the setting. For example, in one study, there was evidence that Latino children spent more time watching TV than did children in other groups. A conventional interpretation of this pattern might be that Latino parents are lax in not clamping down on this unproductive activity. But a deeper look might reveal that keeping children inside watching TV is an adaptive response to parents’ perceptions that their neighborhood is unsafe. Gutierrez suggested that a cultural view of human learning requires attention to the mechanisms that account for regularity, variation and change.

Margaret Beale Spencer and Steve Raudenbush focused on neighborhoods. Spencer noted the importance of cross-classifying the presence or absence of risks and protective factors; each of these four configurations represents a different context for children’s development. In a study she carried out in 41 Philadelphia-area high schools, she found that neighborhood characteristics affected the behaviors and perceptions of high school students. Neighborhood quality was associated with the fear of neighborhood risk. Moreover, youth from higher-quality neighborhoods perceive that teachers have higher opinions of them than do youth from lower-quality neighborhoods, and these perceptions may influence their school engagement and performance.

Raudenbush discussed a study he carried out with Rob Sampson on the effects of neighborhood disadvantage on the verbal skills of Black children. A major methodological problem is that individual risk factors are correlated with neighborhood risk factors, and Raudenbush skimmed over some fancy statistical footwork to make an argument for large neighborhood effects on cognitive achievement. Neighborhood poverty doesn’t tell the whole story: we can classify neighborhoods (i.e., census tracts) according to the percentage of the residents who are on welfare, who are poor, who are unemployed, and who are single parents, as well as the percentage in the neighborhood who are children under the age of 18. In Chicago, 24% of Black children live in the highest quartile of concentrated disadvantage. Shockingly, not a single white or Hispanic child lived in the highest quartile. Raudenbush linked his argument to William Julius Wilson’s book The Truly Disadvantaged, and suggested that one mechanism by which neighborhood disadvantage might stunt cognitive development is isolation from the academic English needed to succeed in school.

Spencer and Raudenbush’s presentations led me to think about the difficulty of constructing defensible value-added models of school and teacher effects on student learning and development. Both of them have documented that neighborhoods matter in ways that go beyond the simple demographic characteristics of students and the schools they attend, which are the customary inputs (along with prior achievement) in value-added models. I think we need to think about neighborhoods as contexts that represent affordances or constraints for student learning, and to control for these contexts in value-added models, because neighborhood characteristics are largely beyond the control of schools and teachers. Shirley Brice Heath’s comment on Raudenbush’s argument was that we need to build out-of-school time into the model, since kids spend a lot of time out of school in their families and communities, again in ways that may not be under the control of schools and teachers. I’d add that many kids are out of school during the summers, and yet value-added models generally rely on annual testing that is not synchronized with exposure to schools and teachers.

Glad to see this.

We have 50 years of research in the U.S. and abroad (going back to the Coleman report at least) demonstrating the powerful link between out-of-school factors and student achievement (poverty, single-parent families, and popular culture -- not to mention language and disability challenges).

Hard to believe schools can compensate for all of that, but that's the fairy tale we keep telling ourselves. Of course the fairy tale has the added advantage of permitting the right wing to identify schools as the source of the problem, when in fact all the schools have done is quantify the extent of the larger social failure.

I don't know wonkery. I think its a little too simplistic to sigh and say the schools can't fix the problem. Minimally, schools have to be a part of the solution. When you look at the divide between the haves and have nots--and throw in the factor of race as it was revealed above, we are in grave danger of implicating the system of public education in the maintenance of a fixed class sytem.

wonkery123 and Margo/Mom have identified a typical rhetorical stalemate. One side of the argument is "schools can't do it alone," which Richard Rothstein and others have been championing for some time. The other side is the "soft bigotry of low expectations," which argues that focusing on social and economic correlates of academic achievement lets schools off the hook for holding high expectations for poor and minority kids, and promoting their achievement. It's surprisingly difficult to reconcile these two perspectives via public policy, because most initiatives address one of them while giving minimal attention to the other. The "schools can't do it alone" argument is really about social policy, not just education policy; but we are accustomed to thinking about education policy solutions to what are framed as education problems.

The session chaired by Darling-Hammond on value-added models had a lot of interesting info. I don't have my notes out, but the short take is this: value-added models aren't the unbiased indicators that policymakers hope (and have been told) they are. You can get completely different teacher rankings depending on which value-added model you use, which variables you include, and so on. In fact, the very same teacher can be shown as an excellent or a poor teachre, depending on these factors.

It's important research and it probably won't get any play...and people who have their value-added services to sell will ignore it.

(Btw, what conference planner put this session into a small room and all those empty sessions into huge ones? The crowd spilled out of both doors, someone fainted, and one discussant couldn't even get to the front. OTOH, a lot of researchers put up with all kinds of human discomfort to hear this.)


I almost never disagree with you, but I really have to challenge your characterization of both sides of this debate. The "schools can't do it alone" approach is fundamentally about education, as well as social policy. It is a very subtle, but it is an essential truth of school reform. We can't just wish away the results of the Coleman Report and numerous other findings (virtually uncontested by solid research) about the limits of schools. As long as we pretend to believe the "Benign Expectations" approach, schools will be subjected to more of the silly curriculum-driven reforms of the last few years, and the blame game of NCLB. Education is an affair of "The Heart" as well as "The Head." Our poor kids need the full measure of respectful, holistic education. As long as we pretend that centuries of oppression did not create conditions that defy our current abilities to solve in our current school buildings, we will give in to quick fixes that further damage our poor kids. And we will continue to hear people gloat over magnet schools that cream the most motivated students, leaving a greater critical mass of challenging kids in neighborhood schools. You know the joke about "being born on third base and believing you hit a triple."

The Left and the Right wings of the Benign Expectations School are perfect examples of the old joke "De Nile is not just a river in Egypt."

Look at the economic decline of the last two months and tell me that it is not producing a decline in student performance. If test scores go up during this downturn, would you believe them? My assumption is that even if NCLB was working and schools were doing a better job at this moment, our capacity to improve student learning is being dwarfed by the hardships created by our current decline. The current economic downturn has not hit my community yet, but everytime in my career the economy declined we saw the results IN REAL TIME in our classes. Fights, depression, dropping out, and academic failure always increase dramatically as the economists are debating whether we are in a recession. And surprise, when the economy recovers, instantly we all become better teachers.

Still I love your postings.


It's possible that I wasn't clear in my comments, so let me try another tack. Rothstein and others make a persuasive argument for the impact of social institutions such as the economy on the educational opportunities facing children and youth, especially the poor, immigrants, and children of color. Yet the central problem condition -- structured inequality -- is not addressed by education policy "solutions" such as NCLB. It is in this sense that I'm arguing that the problem is a matter of social policy that is broader than education policy.

Skoolboy--I was just poised to disagree with you, on the topic of "benign expectations" when the words
"structured inequality" leaped out of your last post. This is exactly where I am coming from. If we examine schools from the 50,000 foot level, we might notice the number of metropolitan areas in which the overwhelming number of students are educated in an "urban school system," where despite the success of a few magnets, things are not going well. Attached around the edges of this "system" (like leeches is always my image) are multiple small (as in 1-2 high schools) bedroom communities, who fight amongst themselves for who is the best.

Even if you consider the fact that NCLB has made them accountable in some fashion for educating the few less desirables (generally students with disabilities, but sometimes racial minorities or a fringe of low-income students), these districts aim at educating a well-off population. Chances are that their buildings are newer, the property values (still the basis for funding in most areas) are higher, as are the educational levels of parents. Out of school opportunities are more plentiful and higher quality (and so are pre-school opportunities). Their per-pupil Title I allotment for students who are low income is curiously higher.

This is how we have chosen to structure education. The rich get more, and they don't have to rub elbows with the poor. Given this reality, not only is there no such thing as benign expectations, but we (that's all of us who are complicit in this set-up through omission or commission) have institutionalized the opposite.

No Child Left Behind cannot change this structural inequity. It can, however, shine a bright spotlight on it. The real test of effectiveness will be what we do with what we see. If we respond, as we did to Brown, by focusing on the inequities within districts, we might move some kids, or some resources around. If, on the other hand, we respond--as we generally did not do in Brown--by looking at the interdistrict inequities--and why they are there, we might have some hope of change.

Schoolboy, it was probably more of my mistake. I get agitated on this issue.

Margo/mom, we typically disagree on the solutions at least in relation to NCLB. But you are exactly right. The problem is structural inequalities. The most NCLB can do is shine a spotlight. And the best aspect of the law is highlighting the achievement gap. Had NCLB testing been for diagnostic purposes, it would have also shined the light o the inequities. And perhaps we would have been less obsessed with manipulating data. On the other hand, I understand why people were reluctant to just trust the schools to address this longstanding horror, I mean structural inequality.

Interesting discussion. I'm not sure that most of us are in serious disagreement.

To be clear: I don't want to let schools off the hook, but I don't want to let the rest of society off the hook either.

My argument isn't "soft bigotry" -- it's hard reality. These kids don't have an equal start in life. I'm willing to hold schools accountable for half of the achievement gap, but it's a pipedream to believe that schools, no matter how well structured, flexible, or funded, can fix 100% of this problem.

In that sense, no one needed NCLB to "shine a light" on the achievement gap. Anyone paying attention understood it existed. Equally to the point, NCLB and its framers quite cynically ignored decades of research evidence to place the onus for the achievement gap entirely on educators, conveniently ignoring the role parents, communities and national policies encouraging child poverty in this catastrophe.

For every problem, no matter how complicated, there is a solution that is simple, direct ... and wrong, said H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore. NCLB is such a solution.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • wonkery123: Interesting discussion. I'm not sure that most of us are read more
  • john thompson: Schoolboy, it was probably more of my mistake. I get read more
  • Margo/Mom: Skoolboy--I was just poised to disagree with you, on the read more
  • skoolboy: John, It's possible that I wasn't clear in my comments, read more
  • john thompson: Schoolboy, I almost never disagree with you, but I really read more




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