My wife spent a few years teaching in a mostly low-income elementary school. The main thing I remember her telling me was that parental involvement was a near-perfect predictor of her students' performance. The kids with active parents did well, and the kids with disengaged parents did poorly.
A recent New York Times Magazine featured a fascinating article by Paul Tough on the conundrum of the education gap between rich and poor (and white and black). The bad news is that this gap is indeed deeply rooted in parenting styles from a very young age. There is a stark difference between the way middle class or professional parents raise their children and the way poor parents do. The former talk with their children far more, expose them to a broader range of vocabulary and give them far more positive reinforcement.
The good news is that some schools have shown that they can compress this gap with an intensive and properly focused program. One of the biggest factors in their success seems to be quantity. The students arrive earlier in the day, stay later and enjoy radically shorter summer vacations.
Now, here is where things get political. Conservatives see these success stories and draw from them the (essentially correct) lesson that it is possible to dramatically improve education for poor children. But, much like the neoconservative belief that people everywhere crave democracy, they take this basic truth as a point of departure into wild utopian flights of fancy.
Conservatives citing these success stories have made their motto "No Excuses" - as if it is only the pathetic failure of the education bureaucracy that is keeping every school from matching these achievements. President Bush's No Child Left Behind law set as its official goal the elimination of the achievement gap between rich and poor and white and black within a dozen years.
What the conservatives don't grasp is that the inner-city success stories are hard to replicate. These schools attract a small cadre of extremely bright and dedicated teachers, often willing to work 16-hour days.
You can find some teachers like that, but you can't find enough to staff every school in the nation, or even just the poorest ones.
There are two main problems with our pool of teaching talent. The first is that it's badly distributed. Schools are mostly funded locally, which means rich districts can easily afford to pay teachers more than poor ones.
The second problem is that teachers in general are massively underpaid. Two generations ago, teaching was able to attract a lot of highly skilled women because they were excluded from most professions on the basis of their gender. But as workplaces have opened up to women, schools have lost this vast pool of artificially underpaid talent.
If you want highly skilled teachers who work investment banker hours, we have to pay them like - well, if not quite like investment bankers, then a lot more generously than we pay them now. This is the point most conservatives refuse to accept.
Of course, you do have some teachers willing to make that enormous financial sacrifice. But you can't build a national education strategy around relying on the kindness of strangers.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at the New Republic.