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

Friday, January 07, 2011

More Attention to Segregated Charter Schools Without Real Teachers

From a piece for NPR by Natalie Hopkinson:  
Natalie Hopkinson is a fellow of the Interactivity Foundation and the co-author of Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation. . . . .

. . . .Many D.C. parents are finding that, sure, there are plenty of choices — just not a lot of good, or even passable ones. When you mix corporate strategies with an ominous 2014 compliance deadline under the "No Child Left Behind" law, you often end up with scenes that look nothing like what most of us might recognize as a classroom.

"What once was an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy," the acclaimed education historian Diane Ravitch writes in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. "The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators. It often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education. It produced mountains of data, not educated citizens. Its advocates then treated that data as evidence of its success."

That strategy has grown even more intense as teachers and administrators are testing for their professional lives. Under "No Child Left Behind", 100 percent of schools must reach certain test-score targets by 2014; schools that fall short could lose federal funding, or be closed.

Even if the law is repealed, which is something the Obama administration has signaled it will do, education has been changed in this country forever. Obama's "Race to the Top" program continues to use the same sticks and carrots that require educators to teach to the test or else be fired or make less money.

The looming deadline is making people do crazy things: Like administrators pushing out low-performing students in North Carolina. Like teachers helping students cheat in Atlanta. Like officials producing math so fuzzy, it would make Wall Street CEOs blush. And, in the case of the Oprah-certified former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, like importing shoddy private managers to take over a school.

Under this framework, "failing" schools are by definition the ones serving the most vulnerable populations — recent immigrants learning English, families battling poverty, children with trifling or MIA parents. The reformers say that even these students would produce better test scores if only they weren't sitting in front of "lazy" teachers collecting checks, a slight upgrade from Ronald Reagan's welfare queens.

Under this movement, teachers don't get better with practice. Instead they are installed and reinstalled like interchangeable parts. Teachers' unions, originally organized to protect the mostly female work force from capricious regulations of their marriages and lifestyles by mostly male administrators, are depicted as the enemies of progress. (Police unions somehow escaped blame for rising murder rates.)

I'm less concerned about the teachers and administrators than I am the children stuck in those classrooms. What it means to learn has been transformed for a generation of urban children. Education is acquiring a basic body of knowledge needed to competently vote and play Jeopardy, appreciate music and art, go to college and get a job, communicate and so on.

But in the name of reform, it's as if somehow the goalpost has been moved without our realizing it. Now education — for those "failing" urban kids, anyway — is about learning the rules and following directions. Not critical thinking. Not creativity. It's about how to correctly eliminate three out of four bubbles. The whole messy, thrilling, challenging work of shaping young minds has been reduced to a one or a zero. Pass or fail.

A decade of this language has taken its own toll. Kids attend "failing" schools. A majority of black boys are "failures." Whole communities are branded with a collective "F." Conservative California politicians liken Compton parents who demand the heads of school staff to modern-day versions of Rosa Parks.

So in cities such as New York, they bring in the number crunchers instead of real education experts — even if these privatization experiments can go horribly, tragically wrong. And even if choosing a charter school often means choosing to racially segregate.

Public schools that enjoy certain socioeconomic privileges (and a minimal number of needy kids) are thriving and will continue to be left alone. But for the "failing" communities and students, there will be no public system. Instead they are required to navigate the education marketplace, choosing between neighborhood schools that have been creamed of their best students and the new experimental start-ups that on average perform worse than traditional public schools. "This strategy plays a shell game with low-performing students, moving them out and dispersing them, pretending they don't exist," Ravitch wrote.

We have collectively decided that we are incapable as a society of honoring the social contract to own buildings and pay teachers in disadvantaged communities. How can a whole demographic of children need to be "fixed"? How can all of them be wrong?

As for his black son, Bridgers believed that there was something wrong with the medicine. "The teacher was too young," he says. "He couldn't handle the pressure." A week after Bridgers visited the school, his son told him that the young teacher had left and never come back. So Bridgers sent his son to live with his mother in Pennsylvania. "I coach football Little League," he told me. "This is what we talk about on the sidelines. It's terrible what they are doing to these schools."

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