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

Monday, January 19, 2009

Jay Mathews Pumps His New KIPP Book on MLK Day

By strenuous overreaching across inappropriate analogies, Jay Mathews today managed to offer a big plug for his new book, to give a passing nod to Martin Luther King, to note that he and Barack Obama have been members of the same church denomination, and to become the fiery advocate for the notion that every child should be judged, not the color of her skin, but by the content of her bubble sheet.

To accept anything less, according to Mathews, is worse than engaging in the "bigotry of low expectations:" it is to become a "sorter," as in one who sorts, in a racist sort of way, the cans from the cannots. Sorters sit at the opposite end of Mathews' false dichotomy from "educator," and educators believe that everyone should take the SAT, not just white folks.
These days, those of us interested in schools -- parents, students, educators, researchers, journalists -- are not sure if we believe in teaching or sorting. Is it best to strain ourselves and our children trying to raise everyone to a higher academic level, or does it make more sense to prepare each child for a life in which he or she will be comfortable? The people I admire in our schools want to be teachers. Sorting, they say, is a new form of the old racism but subtler and in some ways harder to resist.
I suspect that Mathews must be talking to some of those Teach for America (Awhile) anti-teacher ed scholars who have not suffered through a history of ed course, or who have not been around long enough to know that sorting has been around longer than they have. It began, Jay, just about a hundred years ago, in fact, with another group of bold reformers looking to "scientifically manage" schools, schools that would be based on "scientific" curriculums that would be assessed using "scientific" tools, i.e., standardized tests.

What happened then, Jay, is the same thing that is happening today among those who will not let past mistakes get in the way of making the same ones again. What the bold reformers of a hundred years wanted most was a "scientific" way to engineer a society that would assure the protection of privilege and power for those who already had it, while giving full lip service to a meritocracy based on testing, which would, in good Jeffersonian fashion, "rake a few geniuses from the rubbish." Sounding familiar, Jay?

By mid-century, we were ready to let the SAT do the sorting for us--the poor from the middling classes and the middling from the upper classes--so that the privileged would be left blameless for doing what their well-designed tests would, otherwise, do for them.

It has only been in the past thirty years that the privileged could no longer ignore the fact that their tests left out the poor. Unfortunately for everyone it seems, except the test companies, the remedy for the disparity has not been sought by ending the poverty that, as Dr. King knew, was the source for the testing gaps. The remedy has been sidestepped by diversions aimed to blame the teachers or the schools or the parents for not closing the gaps. And most unfortunate for the poorest children where the gaps are greatest, the privileged now devise chain gang schools of forced learning to change what is inside the children's heads, rather than to change the social inequities, lack of opportunities, and covert racism that such interventions leave soundly in place. That's where you come in, Jay.

Most of us, for humane reasons, think it is best that people choose lives that fit. That is why the sons and daughters of housecleaners are advised to take vocational courses and why impoverished children are less often encouraged to take the SAT than are affluent children. This notion of a place for everyone was used by defenders of slavery before the Civil War and of Jim Crow after it, but we never think of it that way. We say we don't want to put unneeded stress on children who can't handle it.

In this new era, which will win: teaching or sorting?

So in "this new era" that looks so much like the old era that antiquarians and bold reformers are now indistinguishable, Mathews has managed to demolish any distinction (in his own head, at least) between testing and teaching, even though the testing-teaching he advocates is the most socially acceptable and efficient way of sorting the poor that the privileged of our society has yet devised. In the meantime, those who remain defiantly unwilling to do anything about poverty focus more and more on rigid interventions, more hours, and more parrot learning. We have, indeed, reached the era of Kill the Child, Save the Test Taker. We have, in fact, reached the Age of KIPP.
They [KIPPsters] are part of an informal movement including many veterans of the Teach for America program who have made similar progress with such organizations as Achievement First, Aspire, Edison, Green Dot, IDEA, Imagine Schools, Noble Street and Uncommon Schools. But their numbers are small, and their critics large and powerful.
Mathews would have us believe that KIPP and the other corporate welfare outfits he names here are struggling mom and pop operations out to bring enlightenment to the urban poor, when, in fact, they are backed by billions of ready to be tax free dollars from the largest American corporations that are funneled through investment funds and foundations. And, of course, with time running out before the American people understand the extent of the scam, all the bottom feeders are thrown into the same bin as the KIPPsters. Might as well.

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