Monday, September 13, 2010

Competing Visions for Schools

Via Schools Matter, a documentary that looks at a public school that rejects the rote memory and structured behavioral rules that the many in the charter schools movement appear to see as the solution to inner city school performance:
We seem to be operating under the concept that this type of education is a luxury that inner city schools cannot afford. But as I've previously noted, among schools outside of the inner cities there is a wholesale rejection of the "solutions" that are being pushed on inner city schools - uncertified teachers, rote memorization, lengthened school days, gender segregation, teaching to the test, etc., and the rejection is magnified among elite private schools.

Via AVC, an upcoming movie that champions charter schools and demonizes teachers unions.
It fascinates me that school administrators take no responsibility for their role in negotiating and agreeing to teacher contracts, hiring bad teachers, or in failing to act before they get tenure, but teachers unions are faulted for expecting that the union contracts they have negotiated will in fact govern their employment. It is worth noting that among the leading beneficiaries of generous contracts are the managers who negotiate them, as the contract becomes a convenient excuse to grant themselves even more favorable compensation and benefits packages than they agreed to extend to the union. I have considerable respect for Geoffrey Canada and his work in Harlem, but to the extent that he would have preferred public schools to starting charters and while recognizing why he didn't want to have his project impaired by many years of mismanagement of the public school system, it's a bit stunning to me that he expected that he would be able to employ teachers within specially created public schools on an at-will basis.

Finally, via An Urban Teacher's Education, a short film presenting the views of Professor Yong Zhao, in which he expresses gratitude that he received a "bad" education in rural China rather than being processed through the system more typical of that nation, and expresses concern that recent education reforms are pushing this nation's schools in the direction of China's instead of focusing on an approach to teaching children that is consistent with our nation's future needs, including "giving kids room to innovate by following their passions, not subscribing to a set of rules and interests dictated to them from the outside".
The point is not that inner city schools don't need reform, or that schools cannot be improved by offering better teachers and instruction. The point is that our nation consistently wants to approach the problem "on the cheap", repeatedly embraces as new versions of reforms that aren't much different from those used in past, failed efforts, and fails to look at why schools that contain the same basic elements (right down to evil, unionized teachers) manage to successfully educate kids outside of the inner city.

I am reminded of some discussion, a few years ago, about how certain school districts were responding to college early admission by turning the senior year of high school into a joke. At one end you had such measures as not having final examinations for the last semester of school - study for the midterm and coast. At the other you had teachers and school administrators offering classes that involved little to no academic effort, describing how the kids had worked hard for eleven years and deserved a break before college. The conceit was that the kids were college material such that it didn't much matter what happened in school - they would go to college and succeed. I disapprove of that extreme, but I similarly disapprove of the opposite - that the only thing that matters is what happens in school, as measured by standardized tests. With middle and upper class schools the presumption behind letting seniors slack off is that home life and parental expectation will drive success no matter what schools do. Yet for inner city schools we've entered an era of blaming the teacher - the quality of home life, the community and parental expectations are excluded from the equation.

One partially successful model to look at are the British grammar schools of the post-WWII era. They were far from perfect, often being rigid, authoritarian, and even oppressive, and can reasonably be accused of being too fast and too rapid in their sorting of students into academic versus vocational categories. Sure, some of the teachers and administrators fit the caricature presented in The Wall, but no small number of working class kids with uneducated parents emerged from that system amply prepared for college. But let's face it, to the extent that we can identify and replicate the best elements of that system, incorporating them into a more egalitarian educational model, we're not prepared to make the infrastructure investment or pay the teacher salaries it would require, and perhaps not even the extend to which parental expectations drove the phenomenon.

We could also look at our nation's affluent schools, which do "just fine, thank you very much" as compared to their international peers, and ask "Why can't we do something similar in the inner cities", or "Why are we doing pretty much the opposite?"

7 comments:

  1. School reform seems to be about sticks, not carrots. We're going to bring the performance of the kids in inner city schools up to grade level, and as a result what will happen? They'll be able to afford college, they'll be able to find jobs, they'll find their way into the middle class or possibly affluence? Or they'll be overqualified to flip burgers instead of merely being qualified. In the grammar school era you had working class parents who had been held down (along with their parents, grandparents, etc.) by a class system, and many saw real benefit into pushing their kids toward academic success and opportunity. I don't think you can divorce these issues from the question of what value students and parents find in education.

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  2. Let me see if I have this right, Gideon, you don't think there is a positive correlation between education and economic success? I think, at least statistically, you are wrong.

    CWD

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  3. No, what I am arguing is that you won't see what amounts to real academic success unless you convince the families involved that there's going to be a return on their time and effort. You can't do much with a high school diploma these days. Or perhaps it's that employers can get a college graduate for about the same money....

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  4. Interesting, so is your position that society should attempt to educate the parents re: the intrinsic value of education or that society should some how change things so that a HS education has more economic value?

    CWD

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  5. It's more that you can't avoid that part of the equation. If you know of a way to fix the problems of the inner city while acting like the only people in it are school children, and the only hours of their day that matter are the hours they spend in school, please do share.

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  6. I thought this post was about school reform, not "fixing the problems of the inner city" - that said, I'll concur that the two issues are related. However, I won't agree that you can't effect change in the schools without first "fixing" (whatever that means) all the problems of the inner city (whatever that means in this context).

    I think the best thing you could do to help the children of dysfunctional homes (whether in the inner city or elsewhere) would be to establish boarding schools that are geopgraphically isolated . . . but that would cost coin and political capital that no one is willing to expend.

    CWD

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  7. Your example of how to fix the schools without changing anything outside of the school walls is what?

    Teach for America likes to tout its success, which it defines as a statistically significant improvement in the performance of students via a non-random selection of TFA classrooms. If I recall the numbers correctly, students entered on average at the 14th percentile and finished the year at the 17th percentile.

    Seriously.

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