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

Monday, June 27, 2011

Brooklyn Ascend Brought to Earth by Former Teacher, Part 2

This is the second email that I received from Emily Kennedy prior to our interview.  I am using Emily's name because she wants wanted it that way, and it should not be construed as affecting the anonymity that I have assured, and will assure, to other interviewees involved in my current research project involving former teachers of KIPP.
Dear Teacher Friends and Other Like-Minded Folks,

By now, a lot of you have heard about the experience I had teaching at charter school in Brooklyn this year.  I hope my ranting wasn't too much, but if it was, you may want to skip to the next paragraph of this email so you don't have to hear it all again.  To the rest of you, however, I'd like to share a little bit about what I saw happening at this school. 
Our students, whom we were required to refer to as "scholars," were required to remain silent and sit with their hands folded in front of them for virtually the entire day. There was close to zero peer interaction at any time, and we were not allowed to plan any hands-on or inquiry-based learning activities at all (activities that are meant to spur curiosity, for example, and foster critical thinking skills).  Beginning in December, we were required to teach only test-prep lessons - which were mostly scripted by supervisors, and mostly focused on tricks they could use to get "right answers," rather than developing genuine forms understanding - until the state test, which was in May.
My group of students, deemed by mock-test data to be the "lowest-performing" in the school, were no longer allowed to have science and social studies like the rest of their peers; instead, they received an extra hour of reading comprehension and math instruction each afternoon.  (Since it's [writing] not tested, by the way, there were absolutely no writing lessons throughout the entire day.)  I wasn't allowed to differentiate lessons to help students with different learning needs find success, because it was considered an inefficient teaching strategy.  Not surprisingly, the same students - mostly those with ADHD and learning disabilities - struggled day in and day out to meet the same "high expectations" as the rest of their peers, and fell further and further behind.  [IEPs for special needs students never made to the classrooms.]
Additionally, my students were asked to spend an extra hour either before or after school participating in tutoring, where they did even more test prep.  For most of my students, that meant a school day that ran from 7:30 to 5:30, with only a 15 minute break for indoor recess - which, by the way, was only allowed if they also finished the hour of homework we gave them each night.   Perhaps worst of all, the pressure to pass the tests was not even remotely concealed from the kids.  Instead, they were constantly informed that they would not go to fourth grade if they failed.
Needless to say, I had many miserable kids - constantly complaining of stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue - in my class.  If ever they slumped in their seats, however, or nodded off during class, we were required to mark the behavior as a "correction" on a chart, and tell them that their "excuses" would not be accepted.  (Teachers, by the way, received only a 15 minute lunch break during the day, so we also complained of stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue. Needless to say, [too] our excuses were also not accepted.)    

I don't know yet how the kids ended up doing on their state exams.  For their sake, I hope they did well and will all get to move to the next grade.  If they pass, however, it will have come at the expense of so many other valuable skills that I deeply believe children should be getting in school and that they will undoubtedly need for the rest of their lives - the opportunity to learn with and from one another, for example, or to learn to think critically and creatively about problems without having the solution spelled out for them right away.    

Please don't get me wrong - I am not saying that charter schools, in general, are necessarily a problem, and I am certain that there are many that are much more child-centered and oriented toward real and deep forms of learning than the one I worked at.  But my experience at this school has left me deeply troubled.  Through movies like "Waiting for Superman," most of us have heard by now about how there are certain schools that are "closing the achievement gap." 
 But I have begun to suspect that this claim is largely an empty one, even if the test scores they post are impressive. When I hear about how children are educated at schools like KIPP or Harlem Success, for example - which are frequently held up as the models of education that we should be aspiring to give all urban children - I hear of many of the same practices that I witnessed at the charter I worked at.  And so I wonder, are these children really getting the type of education they deserve?  The type of education that most of us got as children?  If they are being silenced and their education is being treated like a product that can be churned out of a factory, as they were at the school I worked at--do good test scores really mean anything?    

Certainly, there is room for debate on issues of choice, testing, and accountability in public schools.  But I have become deeply worried about the direction that current education policies are taking us, particularly in the world of urban education.  I'm worried for teachers, and the type of teaching we'll be able to do as time goes on, and I'm worried about the kids, and the type of education they'll be getting.   

And so - and this gets to the real point of this email - I think it's time to have our voices heard, and I want you to join me.  From July 28th-31st , I'm planning to attend a conference and rally in Washington, D.C. called "Save our Schools and National Call to Action."  The "guiding principles" of the rally are 1) equitable funding for all public school communities, 2) an end to high-stakes testing for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation, 3) teacher, family, and community leadership in forming public education policies, and 4) curriculum developed for and by local school communities.  Take a look at the link http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org/ for more details.  (And, education-buffs, notice that the key-note speakers are going to be Jonathan Kozol and Diane Ravitch.)  

If you have time, please take a look at the link, and consider joining me in D.C. that weekend.  It probably won't change any policies right away, but hopefully, it will spark much-needed conversation about what is happening in today education policy and the direction things are moving in.  And maybe it will help some people, who may have forgotten, remember that education is really about giving children opportunities to grow and succeed in all sorts of different ways - not just teaching them tricks to pass tests.

Thanks so much for listening, and please let me know if you're interested in coming with me that weekend.


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