Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Inner-City Schools : A Multiple-Variable Discussion

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Inner-City Schools : A Multiple-Variable Discussion

Article excerpt

Good intentions and intuition are not enough to guide us in our efforts to improve the lot of those children who attend inner-city schools. The task, Mr. Van Horn points out, calls for systematic study of the body of knowledge in more than a dozen disciplines. He provides a small sampling of the research in a number of those areas here.

IF ANYONE tells you, "Just do such and such, and you will have a great school," don't believe them. At best, purveyors of simplistic solutions are selling harmless snake oil; at worst, they divert our attention from solutions to the very real problems facing our schools. Harsh words, but the truth is that, to make great schools & especially great inner-city schools & you have to think in a lot of different categories and consider dozens of variables. You have to think in very untraditional ways, you have to trade what you "know" for what you can prove, and you even have to learn a little biology. It also helps if you have a long memory or are willing to study the history of education.

To borrow Harold Hodgkinson's "leaky roof" metaphor, improving a school is like remodeling a house. Repairing the plaster and repainting the walls won't fix a roof that leaks or siding that's rotten.1 Anyone who has ever taken on the task of seriously remodeling a house knows full well that the outcome of the effort is related to how many different things you are willing to fix, replace, redesign, or camouflage. And schools are every bit as complicated as houses.

To illustrate the importance of studying all the variables and the ways they interact, consider biology. Biologists often discuss the law of the "least limiting factor." Simply put, this law states that the growth of an organism is limited by the variable that is in shortest supply, not by the variables that are in abundance.

The plants in your yard are good examples. You can give them everything they need: water, sunlight, fertilizer, trace elements, and TLC, but if the soil is too acidic, the growth of your plants will be limited. They might even die.

The law of the least limiting factor also applies to education. We have a large body of educational research that points out a number of least limiting factors. For example, research on "time-on-task" by David Berliner and others documents that as little as 25% of class time is spent on pertinent academic tasks. That is certainly one example of a limiting factor.2 The research of Wayne Hoy, John Tarter, and Robert Kottkamp on "levels of disengagement" of teachers is another example. These researchers found that some schools have a highly "engaged" faculty while others have a highly "disengaged" faculty. In other words, in some schools teachers feel no allegiance whatsoever to the school, its students, its goals, or anything else.3 Bruce Joyce and Michael McKibbin label such teachers "negative gatekeepers."4 So, while you may do anything and everything to improve your school, your efforts are controlled as much by the law of the least limiting factors as by the variables you work to make abundant.

A third way to show the importance of approaching school improvement from multiple directions comes from the research on the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT). ACOT research in inner-city schools showed that "high computer access" had little effect on achievement & the variable most people look to when judging educational interventions. Fortunately, the ACOT researchers examined a variety of outcome variables and found that "high computer access" was associated with a higher number of students who planned to go on to some form of postsecondary education.5 The ACOT students didn't do better on the tests, but they clearly had different futures planned for themselves. If the researchers had considered only achievement variables, they would not have found a number of more provocative noncognitive outcomes.

Noel McInnis' first law of intelligent tinkering stated, "The first law of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces. …

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