"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, September 12, 2005

Repression in the Name of Choice

When black folks in the South risked their lives to vote during the era of Jim Crow, many used a tried and true method to make their votes count: they would mark a name on the ballot other than the one recommended by the white men eager to offer helpful advice. I think this strategy has a lot to offer any parent today who is clued in to the artful subterfuge of "choice" advocates at ED and the choice dweebs like Chris Whittle of Edison Schools and the other profiteers who wish eliminate public schools by hauling off the public money used to fund them.

The "choice" that these Carnine and Madigan inspired "black civility" schools offer to poor urban dwellers is a harsh learning boot camp that consciously turns school into a job early on, thus habituating these children toward the mindless, rote tasks that are planned for them in the service jobs they will inherit.

Here is an insightful reflection that Peter Campbell shared this morning with listserv members of ARN (Assessment Reform Network) on these corporate welfare schools:

Here are some observations I had after meeting with a board
member of Confluence Academy, an Edison-run
"public" charter
school in St. Louis.


The basis of his argument in defense of Edison went like this: "Sure, the structure of the Edison schools is a bit tough. Yes, we make the kids walk in lines wherever they go. But it works. You don't have to waste 6 minutes at the beginning of class, telling Johnny to sit down and be quiet. And you don't waste 15 minutes in the middle of every class, trying to get students to be quiet and stay on task. Even the
very brightest kids can't learn in an environment like that. No one can."

After meeting with him, it occurred to me that what I should have done was raise the issue of being quiet and paying attention to the teacher as unquestioned and unqualified virtues in themselves. There's something very troubling about white teachers telling students of color to sit down, shut up, and do as they are told. In a rigid structure such as that imposed by Edison, there is no room for student or teacher creativity or spontaneity. The only room for freedom of expression is
either (a) do what the teacher tells you to do or (b) resist what the teacher tells you to do. Given the kind of power and authority structures that already exist in white-dominated society, it's little wonder that students of color are tempted to act out and lash out. If they don't act in this manner, then both the implicit and explicit
power relationships and inequities are reproduced in the classroom: docile brown bodies controlled by powerful white bodies. This is even more troubling given the fact that no white, wealthy, suburban district would ever consent to a school that controlled its students and its teachers in this way. Indeed, these schools pride themselves in their individuality, their creativity, and the professional autonomy of their teachers, who are viewed as experts in assessing what is best for each
student.

The problem, of course, is that inner-city schools don't attract and retain the best and the brightest teachers. But the solution is not to control these less-than-the-best teachers through very rigid curricula. Rather, the solution is to spend the time and the money to adequately support and train these teachers to be as good as their suburban peers.

There are other ways to engage students and have them stay on task, particularly if the tasks are personally meaningful and authentic. As a teacher, I seldom led classes that were quiet. Because my classes almost always used group activities and hands-on, project-based work, they were usually pretty noisy. So I never thought of the issue of whether the class was quiet or not; quite honestly, the issue was
irrelevant. What concerned me was not whether the class was quiet or not, but whether the students were engaged or not. Engagement, in my experience, comes by being able to allow students a great deal of say in the manner of what they learn and how they learn it. The best example of this kind of institutionalized pedagogy can be found at The Met School in Providence, RI. (http://www.metcenter.org/) Note that the majority of The Met School's students are poor kids of color; the school has an incredibly high graduation rate. Best of all, they use multiple forms of authentic assessment, including portfolios and quarterly exhibitions in which students actually demonstrate what they know and what they can do.

One of the ways we can transform our schools is by focusing on professional development for our teachers. We can help them become expert at authentic assessment, in engaging students, and in using formative assessments to guide instruction. But instead of doing this, school districts are sending money outside the schools and giving it to or-profit entities like Edison. Because Edison is a private company, it has no legal obligation to open its records to the public for
scrutiny and accountability. In this light, the comments by James Nevels, a member of the School Reform Commission of Philadelphia and devotee of Edison, are particularly worrisome. He said, "Certainly funding is and was a problem, but if we show we are improving, and Edison has started that, there will be continued funding from the state. The only way we are going to improve schools here is if the
state and the city cooperate. If that means more private and public cooperating in running the most difficult schools, then that is what we may have to do.”

What troubles me about this is the phrase "if we show we are improving . . . there will be continued funding from the state." Without full transparency and full accountability, how do we know that Edison is not merely showing improvement? How do we know if there is real improvement or not? At the end of the day, we are forced to take them at their word. We have to trust them. But we should never have to be in a position of having to trust any organization that serves the public
good. Such organizations need to be as transparent as possible so they can be held accountable. How ironic that, in this day and age of school accountability, the for-profit entities like Edison do not share this burden.

I believe that the kinds of educational reforms that need to occur in public education are not going to come from Edison because, at the end of the day, Edison must satisfy its bottom line. In order to do this, efficiencies have to be realized. A business-oriented, for-profit entity sees inefficiency as the enemy, and it must be eliminated at all costs. Thus, with Edison, we see a standardized curriculum,
standardized modes of organization, standardized methods for teaching reading, etc., etc. The idea is you spend all your time on one thing that you believe is really good and then you go and make every school you run just like every other school. That works pretty well if you're running a fast-food chain. But it goes against the nature of schoolsfor this simple reason: every kid is different, and every kid learns
differently. In this way, schools are inherently inefficient operations. There can be no economies of scale. Just look at Edison's experience in realizing this: they went public and got killed because investors saw no solid business plan.

Moreover, students can't be managed like commodities. There's a great story by a guy named Jamie Robert Vollmer, a former business executive and attorney, who now works as a motivational speaker and consultant to increase community support for public schools. He was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the mid 80’s when People Magazine chose his blueberry as the "Best Ice Cream in America." He was giving a speech to a group of teachers and exclaimed, "If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn't be in business very long!" As soon as he finished his speech, a woman's hand shot up. She began quietly. "We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream." He replied, "Best ice cream in America, Ma'am." "Hownice," she said. "Is it rich and smooth?" "Sixteen percent butterfat," he crowed. "Premium ingredients?" she inquired. "Super-premium! Nothing but Triple A." He was on a roll. "When you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?" the teacher asked. In
the silence of that room, he could hear the trap snap. "I send them back." "That's right!" she barked, "you send them back. But we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, black, white, brown, and yellow, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, sir, is why it's not a business. It's a school."

Peter Campbell
Missouri State Coordinator
ARN


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