Niche Problems vs. Systemic Problems

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s this movie called Waiting for Superman

Kidding aside, there’s an undeniable upsurge in the amount of attention public education policy is getting from the broader populace and media.  Once obscure issues – like “last in, first out” policies and standards-aligned assessments – are suddenly mainstream enough that I hear about them in polite company.  (Not to say my educator friends and colleagues are in any way impolite.)   The most typical genre of the current commentary is the crisis narrative, with Waiting for Superman being the most obvious and salient example.

But there’s another narrative; for lack of a better term, it’s the “eh, it’s not so bad” genre.  Examples of this include Dana Goldstein’s recent piece in TAP, Nick Lemann’s piece in The New Yorker, and Matt Yglesias’s analysis on his blog.  Dana puts it thusly:

“It’s important to note that the major problem with American education is the problem of class and race inequality …Indeed, American white, Asian, and multicultural children perform better than the OECD average in reading, science, math, and problem solving.  It is black and Hispanic kids that are falling behind.”

Matt chimes in:

“I think this tends to undermine the oft-voiced scale-based critique of different reform initiatives … what we’ve got is a bit of a niche problem and we also have a lot of promising looking niche solutions.  Which is more or less what the situation calls for.”

When certain races and classes of American’s are performing disproportionately less well than others, I find it hard to label the situation a “niche” problem.  I understand Matt’s point that we don’t necessarily have to completely revamp the schools that “work” in order to find a solution for those that don’t.  But the problem is broader than this.

If our systems persistently and woefully under-prepare certain populations of students, our response should not be anything less than systemic.  To believe otherwise means thinking that our great schools exist in a leafy suburban policy vacuum, and that our urban and rural failing schools are similarly isolated.  Geographically, that may be true, but from a public policy and operational perspective, it isn’t.  Take human capital as an example.  We can’t just increase human capital flows of the most effective teachers to poor neighborhoods without considering the inevitable impact that will have on broader labor markets. Montgomery County, Maryland is a great example. The superintendent there has been engaged in a decade long – and largely successful – project to close the achievement gap. His strategy was tantamount to a county-wide progressive redistribution scheme.  My point being, there wasn’t really a way to accomplish the goals in that system’s challenged schools without taking a bite out of the bigger apple … and acknowledging the systemic and political challenges therein.  It didn’t have to be zero-sum, but it did require a different solution than “we have to fix the bad schools.”

I struggled to think of a good analogy, and healthcare reform seems like a decent one. (Note, I’m not taking a  position on the politics of the argument I’m about to frame.)  During the health care reform debates, there was a lot of discussion of how to stop the systematic denial of insurance to individuals with “pre-existing conditions.”  Basically, it’s actuarially impossible to outlaw this practice without ensuring something close to a fair distribution of risk in various insurance pools.  Otherwise, folks would wait until they get sick just to get insurance.  Long story short … it’s hard to deal with the parts of systems that aren’t working without considering their impact on the other parts of systems.

3 Responses to Niche Problems vs. Systemic Problems

  1. john thompson says:

    You write “If our systems persistently and woefully under-prepare certain populations of students, our response should not be anything less than systemic.”

    Yes, but what do you mean about systemic? Do you mean systemic change for poor schools, in which case I agree. If you mean that all schools, regardless of whether they are effective or not, in our diverse nation must have national systemic change imposed on them, then you are advocating something dangerous.

    Just think of the harm done to suburban schools by NCLS’s primitive testing and the resulting test prep, curriculum narrowing, and dishonest use of data. The better approach would have been the disaggregation of data for decision-making purposes to help suburban schools better educate their growing populations of poor children of color.

    I don’t doubt that extreme cases like D.C., Detroit, and due to its size NYC, require extreme responses. We should not have risked such damage to the entire nation’s educational values. For instance, my inner city school’s problems are comparable to the toughest high schools in D.C., but the root cause was that we only have 1/2 to1/3rd of the per student funding. The policies that you may believe are beneficial in D.C. (a district that you know) are destructive in our much poorer system because they just perpetuate the culture of compliance.

    This is crucial. The fatal flaw of “reform” has been its hubris. Its challenging enough to devise systemic solutions for poor schools. Creating an educational policy for the entire nation, you all should know, is clearly beyond the capacity of mortals.

    Think of Robert Reich. In the 70s, he was an advocate of industrial policy. He was correct in identifying the deficiencies of the old New Deal liberalism. He saw, however, the limits of technocrats, and how we should have just reformed the old safety net, rather than trusting that the Market would produce benign results. Fundamentally, you should also rmember, our urban educational pathologies are the legacy of the rapid deindustrialization of America, that further damaged the family, that drove down real wages, and broke unions.

    To be concrete, I would agree to trade some of my contractual rights at my school, the lowest performing in my state, to be a part of a collaborative team to help our kids. I do not want teachers is less troubled schools to be disempowered by the side contract that I would be willing to sign. I would support RttT and other reforms if they not only gave reformers more power but they also explicitly limited other powers by reformers. That requires reform that is systemic. That is my view of the word systemic.

    I’m still unclear about your definition of the word.

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  3. Kathleen Smith says:


    I think you have hit in something in comparing a niche to a system. The problem is much bugger than fixing schools and I would guess that in some places even bigger than fixing just the efucation sysytem in which the school is located. The problems in education must be shared by the bigger community including social services, juvenile justice, and others. In some places we not only have to make huge educational policy changes, but huge social policy changes as well.

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