Posts tagged ‘education reform’

January 17, 2013

Organized Parents, Organized Teachers: A Video by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform

This is what parent empowerment looks like.

Organized Parents, Organized Teachers – Working together for effective reform in America’s public schools From the Annenberg Institute on Vimeo. To get related resources on parent-teacher collaboration, visit www.realparentpower.com

October 27, 2012

Another Blow to the Teacher-Quality-Trumps-Poverty Meme

Two weeks ago, The American Prospect published an article that used Joel Klein’s life story as a counter-argument to his proposition that teacher quality is the most important determinant of educational outcomes. A study released this week by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University also packs a punch.

“Is Demography Still Destiny: Neighborhood Demographics and Public High School Students’ Readiness for College in New York City” was released to the public October 23, 2012. It shows that the effort to create a portfolio of options for city public school students has not made an impact on the gross disparity of outcomes in a city that cleaves along the lines of class and race – especially race. The study should be called “Demography Is Destiny,” which is what AISR titled the PDF itself.

Click to read the AISR’s abstract and to download the PDF.

October 12, 2012

Is Teacher Quality a Bigger Influence Than Poverty? New Joel Klein Biography Sheds Some Light

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visit
with students at Explore Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y.
By U.S. Department of Education [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Joel Klein may be the mastermind behind the meme that teacher quality, not a student’s socioeconomic status, is the biggest predictor of academic success. He has used his own streets-to-riches story to make the case.

In the November/December issue of The American Prospect, Richard Rothstein turns Klein’s argument on its head by telling a very different story of how Klein grew up. It’s a must read.

I suggest you start here, at the Economic Policy Institute blog, with Richard Rothstein’s own introduction to his piece. He maps out the thinking behind it. He also underscores the story’s emphasis on the role of public housing policy in segregating American cities. The impact of housing policy on public education is something no teacher can unwind. (This is as good a place as any to plug Antero Pietila’s book, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped an American City, which untangles the history of racism, redlining, and white flight in Baltimore.) If Joel Klein succeeded because he did not grow up among poor minorities, then there has to be more to improving outcomes for American public school children than firing bad teachers. City planning, zoning, and housing policy all need to be part of the conversation.

You can read the article itself here: Joel Klein’s Misleading Autobiography: What the former chancellor of New York City schools’ sleight of hand tells us about education reform. You might also get something from this piece, “Joel Klein’s Hidden Legacy” by PBS education correspondent John Merrow, which traces Klein’s influence on American public education and education reform. That influence is multiplied by Klein’s former deputies,  Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andres Alonso among them.

October 1, 2012

Two Thumbs Up for Won’t Back Down

The latest film from Walden Media and 20th Century Fox shows American audiences how to stage a parent revolution.

Won’t Back Down is a new feature film starring Oscar-nominated actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as two moms, Jaime and Nona, who take over their F-grade public elementary school. The school has a mathematical problem: Eighty percent of graduates can’t read. It’s personal for Jaime, whose 8-year-old daughter, Malia, is a walking statistic. The film opens with Malia’s anguished attempt to sound out a command: “Put the story in order.”

Okay.

  1. Choose an American city with a troubled public school system. Make it Pittsburgh.
  2. Cast a svelte pale-skinned girl with deep brown eyes and honey-blond hair as a FARM-eligible dyslexic second grader.
  3. Give her a feisty, single white mom who has no college degree, works two jobs, and earns less than $27,000 a year.
  4. Stick them in a class with a really bad union teacher who is “tenurized” (in non-college-educated-white-mom parlance), and therefore can never be fired.
  5. Block the exits. a) Make sure the kid can’t switch classrooms. b) Show the heartless Catholic school turn the child away for her parent’s failure to make timely tuition payments (as in Walden Media’s Waiting for Superman.) Then c) recreate the emotional trial of a lottery for a seat in a charter school. Call it Rosa Parks.
  6. When luck is less than a lady, have a linebacker of a principal (Ving Rhames) say something locker room-speechy, like, One in four Americans can’t read. If you don’t like the odds, go out there and fight for something better. You can do it. Yes you can.

But how?

  1. Read The Secret (Jaime has), and brush those teeth. Your winning smile is your greatest asset.
  2. Get the gossip. Pull the receptionist card to get in with the superintendent, then buy that chatty gal a cup of coffee. You’ll never need her again, but she’ll give you the skinny on the latest law that will enable you to takeover your failing school if only you can get half the parents and teachers to agree.
  3. Find a partner. A smart woman. A smart Black teacher whose ideals are in a cardboard box at the bottom of a closet in a Cosby Show-quality African-American home from which her soon-to-be-ex-husband has removed his clothes. Throw in a kid who is picked on for being slow. (This fact may be her fault and your plot’s undoing. Drama!)
  4. Crush on the miraculously still-teaching Teach for America alum at your F-grade school who plays the ukelele, can do the electric slide, and will rub his teeth clean for a woman with a full grown kid and no college degree. You’ll need him.
  5. Try and try and try again to get girlfriend fired up. Keep at it until you see a curl of smoke in her smile and a glint in her eye.
  6. Get to work.

This is the point when real parent organizers will start sharpening their pencils. Because from the looks of it, you need to buy three reams of paper ($15). Make that colored paper, so it looks good on camera (add $3). Copy up some petition forms (200 x $.10). Then take off from your minimum wage receptionist job so you can gather signatures when school lets out at 3 p.m. sharp (at least 8 hours at $8.48 an hour) and lure your new squeeze away from his union with shots of Jack Daniels from the bar where you work nights ($9). Use him to a) convert other teachers to your anti-union cause (his soul), and b) babysit your kid (free) while you and your partner canvass the tenements in your inner city neighborhood in the dark (priceless).

Once you’ve got your petitions signed, stage a rally. Borrow some bullhorns. Call the media. Make sure to have 220 or so custom green T-shirts ($2,200), two bounce houses ($378 plus tax), and a bakery-grade cookie the size of a Frisbee for everyone and his/her mother ($500). Reserve one plate of cookies for the crew in the local news van so they’ll run your story at the top of the hour. Don’t forget the $60 you need to replace your daughter’s backpack, which her classmate broke during an in-classroom cat fight. You’ll also need money for the two buses it takes you to get to the tony private school where the beret-wearing head of the teacher’s union (Holly Hunter) wants to pay your child’s way in a last ditch effort to prevent your becoming the downfall of the American labor movement ($9.50).

By my count, Jaime is out $3262.34 so far. Not that the film ever mentions money. (That is, not until a line item in a proposed budget almost torpedoes the entire enterprise. But I don’t want to spoil the ending.) The question of who’s paying for all this is another math problem the film never solves. For that, one has to look at “actual events.”

“Inspired by actual events” may be the most honest line in Won’t Back Down. Though the city and the cast looked and sounded a lot different. In real life, the first attempt to call “Action!” on the set of a parent trigger law-enabled takeover took place not too far from the sound stages of Hollywood. Printing up forms, canvassing, transporting people to rallies, handling the press – Parent Revolution, a nonprofit with a $1 million budget paid for by corporate philanthropists, took care of all that. (For the skinny, read Parent Trigger: Straight Outta Compton? I wrote it.) Parent Revolution told parents about the trigger and collected their signatures. Just like in the movie, they never asked about a PTA. They even fronted people matching T-shirts. They made them yellow.

Won’t Back Down is unbelievable crap. But it’s also phenomenal as a witless send up of Parent Revolution. The Los Angeles-based equivalent of a production company hammers together Potemkin villages of faux-populist uprising for audiences across America. The ruse, for which Compton was a dress rehearsal, seems designed to convince elites (Democrats for Education Reform, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, Michelle Rhee, etc.) that real people will buy the reform package that their money bought and paid for.

Brilliant. Two thumbs up.

UPDATE: Parent Revolution had a $1 million budget when it was working in Compton, per this article in Mother Jones published April 7, 2011. According to this article, published October 2, 2012 in the Hechinger Report, Parent Revolution’s budget is “roughly $3 million.”

April 11, 2012

Reflections on Year One of Re:education in Baltimore

Honoré Daumier 017 (Don Quixote)

Don Quijote and Sancho Panza by Honoré Daumier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A week ago Baltimore storyteller Rafael Alvarez challenged me, over pita points and taramosalata at Samos, to explain what I was doing with this blog and who I was doing it for, in 140 characters or less. I couldn’t. But I took up the challenge to explain my quixotic quest, as he painted it, in my anniversary post.

Today marks one year of Re:education in Baltimore. It’s my paper anniversary. After filling a dozen creamy pages with ink (they used to call that writing), it’s time to transfer some thoughts to the Web.

What am I doing? 

I started this blog to prevent myself from alienating my friends and family. After a year of engagement with the charter versus neighborhood school quandary, I was bombarding everyone in earshot with talk of issues they either didn’t want to talk about or didn’t want to confront at the same high level of intensity. I’d learned a lot. The people in a ten-foot radius may not have cared, but I was sure others did. Why not write a blog?

What started as (and still is) an outlet for sharing knowledge and curating stories of interest quickly turned into a platform for staging public resistance. Less than a month in, I published “Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard (Not Just Yet. Not So Fast.).” May 2011 would prove the blog’s biggest month in page views for all of 2011, not surpassed until January 2012. The uptake was thrilling in a sort of crazy-making way. I was the rookie who hit a homer in his first at bat. But it was only the beginning. I was in it for the long haul. I had bigger fish to fry.

The uptake of that post changed the direction of the blog when Baltimore NewsTrust reposted it. The site was a short-lived experiment in allowing the public to evaluate the merits of local news stories. It’s sort of like Star Search in that readers can rate selections for “style” and “originality.” It’s a grand experiment. It’s also supremely irritating in that it turns readers into judges. State senator Bill Ferguson, of all people, rated the post, and rated it “poor.” This did not endear him to me. It did get me on his radar, though, and I called him to see if he could help me improve my neighborhood school. He gave me some names. This blog became a foot in the door, a way to link to potentially helpful people in real life. I love it for that. I think that’s why I value it most.

As a result of the NewsTrust attention I began to think of myself differently as a blogger. I began to think of myself as having a journalistic obligation. That was odd. I have a full time job writing for a marketing agency that brands colleges, universities, and independent schools. I hadn’t reported a news story since 1999. But I couldn’t help seeing a major hole in news coverage in this town and a slant in opinion making that is less than progressive or populist – two words I would like to think describe my political values. When mayoral candidate Otis Rolley came out with an education agenda that encapsulated everything that was wrong with the federal push for reform, I used it to take the national conversation down to the local level. I loved his candidacy. There is no greater friend to an activist than an enemy with a four-point plan. But the race ended. And so did my turn as a spotlighter of local politics. I turned inward again, back to the mission to make my neighborhood school a top choice, and the personal tale that goes along with it.

Who’s it all for?

“This isn’t just for your son,” Rafael tells me between bites of a gyro sandwich. He’s right. I wish I could say it was. But it’s not.

Who am I fighting for? Poor people? Black people? I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself. I can’t. I won’t. I write as a parent whose salary is not commensurate with her level of education. (The irony is that I haven’t been able to cash in on my education because I work in education. I sell it. Before that I developed content for it. These are not lucrative tasks.) I might say I am a fighter for the shrinking middle class. I’m one of its voices. I care about the direction the country is taking. I worry about the future of the world my son is growing up in. I witness behavior and read language that is thoughtless and careless, that is based in prejudice, classism, and racism, and I feel compelled to call it out. I’ve been doing that since the ninth grade. It has never won me any friends.

“You’re earnest,” Rafael tells me.

“That’s my blogger persona,” I explain. “I cultivate that. I can do snark and irony and cynicism, but the blogosphere doesn’t need it.”

“That’s fine,” he says. “You can make your nuanced arguments. You can take the high road. But people want their 140 characters.”

Fine, then: I want to leave my little world better than I found it.

If that’s not enough, follow me on Twitter. Better yet, help me celebrate my anniversary by subscribing to Re:education in Baltimore today.


April 3, 2012

Public Education Communication Breakdown

I just came across a section of a piece on education reporting — “Flunking the Test” by Paul Farhi in the February/March issue of American Journalism Review — that I find myself wishing the communications officials at Baltimore City Public Schools would read:

…veteran education reporters say they face a simple yet profound barrier to doing their job: It’s hard to get inside a classroom these days. They say administrators are wary about putting potential problems on display, particularly in the wake of No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration’s initiative, Race to the Top.

“School systems are crazed about controlling the message,” says Linda Perlstein, author of two books about schools and, until recently, public editor of the Education Writers Association. “Access is so constricted.” As a result, she says, “There’s great underreporting of what happens in classroom, and it’s just getting worse.”

Perlstein spent three school years in classrooms to report a series about middle school for the Washington Post in 2000, and for her books, “Not Much Just Chillin'” (about middle schoolers in Columbia, Maryland) and “Tested” (about high-stakes tests). But Perlstein says other reporters were never able to gain similar access to other schools, including those in Washington, D.C., where the reform efforts of former Schools Chancellor Rhee attracted national attention.

Even with a cooperative principal or school superintendent, few reporters could make the lengthy commitment that Perlstein did in her reporting. That means journalists don’t get to see the very thing they’re reporting about. Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally. Some districts even forbid teachers from speaking to the media on the record outside the classroom.

What to do? “You rely more and more on talking heads and less on what a school looks like,” Perlstein says. She adds, “That matters.” Ironically, superintendents and administrators “always tell me that the media gets it wrong. Well, how can we get it right when they won’t talk to us?”

February 8, 2012

Four Hyperactive Parenting Trends and the Fight of the Shrinking Middle Class

Buy this book.

More and more parents of at-least-modest means are taking their children’s education into their own hands. Without further ado, four trends:

1. Homeschooling (a.k.a. “DIY Education”)

In Why Urban, Educated Parents Are Turning to DIY Education (Newsweek/Daily Beast, January 30, 2012), education writer Linda Perlstein interviews homeschooling moms – only moms – who answer the “why” of the article’s title in highly personal ways. None talks about finances. Linda (I know Linda, or I’d call her Perlstein) mentions that some homeschooling parents work full-time or take on part-time gigs. But I have a hunch you’ve got to have a pretty conventional family dynamic – married, with male parent winning the bread – to pull this off. Maybe I’m wrong. But someone needs to pay for health insurance, cover the mortgage and clothes and food, maybe make a car payment and put some money away for college.

What about household finances? Securing high-quality childcare and school options, especially if a couple has more than one child, often costs more than a second income could bring in. That has to be a factor – at least one among the many others – in a middle class family’s decision to homeschool. Now, I know there are stay-at-home dads. But why is it so often the moms who are staying home? Could the choice be more forced – not only by finance, but also by persistent gender discrimination in the workplace – than we’d like to think? The labor market still favors men. So it would make sense to wonder whether homeschooling moms are giving anything up by becoming their children’s educators. Professors Cynthia S. Levine and Nicole Stephens at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern have been looking into it. They published an article this summer called “Opting Out or Denying Discrimination? How the Framework of Free Choice in American Society Influences Perceptions of Gender Inequality.” (Read the press release.)

2. Co-operative and Community Supported Education

Did you catch mom Soni Sangha’s The Pre-K Underground (New York Times, December 16, 2011) on illegal parent co-ops in New York City? This is what it looks like when middle class parents are forced to get creative because the public schools can’t offer them what they need and private school tuition is impossibly out of reach.

I would also lump into this category of “trend” community-supported education. In “Can a Community Support Education?” (Cooperative Catalyst, January 29, 2012), Donna Mikkelsen introduces a private, community-based school called The Garden Road School, which she founded. The school’s story sounds very much like that of a private school in Baltimore called The Greenmount School, and I’m sure there are others like it in cities across the country. These schools are started by parents and represent an affordable independent school option for parents who want an alternative to both the high-anxiety world of upper-crust prep schools – with the endless homework and drive to perform – and the welfare-state interventions of soul-crushing testing dished up by the public schools.

3. Neighborhood School Renaissances

Jacqueline Edelberg and Susan Kurland’s How to Walk to School: A Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance (Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2009) is an account of the transformation of a public school in Chicago called Nettlehorst. The book includes a foreword by Arne Duncan and a short essay by Rahm Emanuel. It’s a story of what can happen when the grit of mostly not-full-time-employed urban gentry moms meets the unstoppable force of a principal extremely open to change.

I credit Edelberg’s book talk of January 19, 2011 at the Enoch Pratt Library with reigniting my passion for working with my neighborhood public school. A number of parent groups in Baltimore are hopping on this train. I think it’s fantastic and – like all the other tactics listed here – fraught with complexity. Freelance writer Amy Landsman interviewed me and several other parents for “School Choice: Options for City Parents” (Baltimore’s Child, October 2011) at the request of the editors there, one of whom is my neighbor. The article also features Judy Chung O’Brien, president of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance and a mom at a traditional public school called Federal Hill Prep. Parents are organizing themselves around schools in Charles Village, Hampden, Bolton Hill. Speaking for myself, if I didn’t feel some serious financial pressure to make my neighborhood public school work for my family this blog wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t have founded a parent group. It’s more complicated than that, sure. But why not admit money is a driver? A savvy District could do great things for schools now that the housing market downturn will force middle class families with young children to stay in Baltimore City.

4. Parent-Spawned Charter Schools

It’s impossible to talk about charter schools in Baltimore without talking about Bobbi Macdonald and City Neighbors. (In fact, the day after I wrote this sentence, yet another post came out singing its praises.) City Neighbors Public Charter School, which now has two campuses and a high school, has become a shining utopia in what is otherwise painted as an apocalyptic public school landscape. It’s worth remembering that what spawned its founding wasn’t just love but money, or lack of it. The City Paper piece reported by Anna Ditkoff (Late StartBaltimore City Paper, May 12, 2004) starts where the school did, with Macdonald’s wish to find a great school for her eldest daughter. When she couldn’t find one that she loved – and could afford – she started her own, with public funds and pro bono legal services from DLA Piper.

City Neighbors is not the only parent-founded charter school in Baltimore. As far as I know, Patterson Park Charter School, Southwest Baltimore Charter School, Montessori Public Charter School, and Roots & Branches have similar stories, as does the charter-school-in-progress Creative City. The Green School was founded by teachers and a strong cohort of parents. Midtown Academy predates the charter law but is now a charter school, and it includes many parents on its board. I have met parents from every one of these schools. I know some of them very well. We all agree that the charter school model is not an unqualified good – just like every other approach on this list. Though I think the charter school trend represents a social and political menace that none of the others do. (Read this blog.)

What’s It All Mean?

These “trends” – or maybe it would be better to call them “tactics” –  are each a kind of reaction to anxiety among parents who aren’t poor enough to benefit from social services nor rich enough to sniff at the cost of child care and excellent schools. We are the monkeys in the middle. We are often outsiders, new to the communities in which we live, wary of membership in the traditional institutions that used to offer middle class families support. For those of us doing well, affordable childcare and free public schooling add immeasurably to our quality of life. For those not doing as well as our parents did, the anxiety of our kids’ slipping further downward in the class ranks is too much to bear. So we are taking up arms – some alone, some together. We are not going down without a fight.

If I didn’t have a full-time job – a job I truly love, but also very much need – I would write a book.

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January 16, 2012

My Kids Are Too Good for Public School, and Other Messages I Wish Wealthy Parents Wouldn’t Telegraph

My K-6 alma mater

This post was inspired by two pieces – one local, one not – published January 13. Tell me if you don’t see a connection:

1) “Sending Kids to City Schools Still a Concern,” a feature story by Adam Bednar for North Baltimore Patch, and

2) “America’s Dangerously Removed Elite,” an opinion by David Sirota for Salon.com

Read the Baltimore story and you’ll notice a heavy focus on efforts to ameliorate concerns among parents in Mount Washington and Charles Village about the neighborhood public schools. But the narrative begins and ends with the story of one family, the Balchunas, who were priced out of Howard County and bought a home zoned for Roland Park Elementary/Middle School instead.

Like most parents who shop for homes after they have kids, the quality of the neighborhood was a big factor in their purchase.* Despite being zoned for one of the most coveted grade schools in Baltimore, however, the Balchunas are still “wrestling” with their options, to use Bednar’s word. They have submitted an application to the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, and they could extend their child’s stay at New Century, where their eldest daughter is in pre-kindergarten. Bednar quotes the mom:

“I want to use Roland Park Elementary, but I’m worried it won’t be able to accommodate where my daughter is intellectually,” Balchunas said.

Oof.

Before I go Talmudic in my interpretation of this one quote, I want readers to keep this caveat in mind: The way Bednar couches it, this mom’s statement doesn’t do much to win her any friends. The word “accommodate” in an education context usually rides alongside the words “special needs.” But that’s not what is meant here. The ring of superiority in the second clause rubbed at least one RPEMS mom-acquaintance of mine way wrong. (At least on Facebook.)

To give the message a little more context, New Century is a Montessori-inspired preschool which, according to the school website, offers “complete language immersion in either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese for the toddler classes.” If that’s a parent’s ideal, it’s a safe assumption that the academic program at RPEMS would be a step down. And, to be fair, worrying that a public school is below our children’s intellectual par is something all parents of a certain class do. We’ve been trained to think private equals better. More to the point, we believe our children are really, really bright. You can’t fault Balchunas for believing that. It’s a great thing to believe about one’s own child, which is why almost every other parent I know believes the same thing.

So I hesitate to dismiss Balchunas. I would love to meet her. (In fact, I’m trying to.) She was brave to talk to the press. She’s obviously a good mom. She’s putting her kids first in every decision her family makes.

What jumped out at me about the quote, as Bednar reported it, was the use of the word “use.” “I want to use Roland Park Elementary,” Balchunas says.

Use?

Now the Talmud Torah opens its doors. At the risk of sounding like a pedant, I went to school. (The school I attended through sixth grade was a yeshiva, actually.) I will send my child to school. I want to find him a school he can go to, a school he can walk to. A school is a place, not a thing. It contextualizes a certain kind of activity – namely, learning. That a parent would talk about wanting to “use” her public school – well, that’s how we talk about the public bus, or the city pool. What does it say when parents who can afford a private institution start talking about public ones the way we talk about what is, in Baltimore, the lousiest mode of transportation? The cheapest way to cool off? There goes the neighborhood (by car). And the country with it.

Which leads me to story number 2.

David Sirota’s wrath at the nation’s “dangerously removed elite” – which he trains mainly on Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and New Jersey governor Chris Christie – comes in reaction to an outcry over the school and home purchase choices of Tom Boasberg, the public school superintendent of Denver, Colo., where, I am led to infer, Sirota lives. Like the president himself, none of these political uber-men sends his children to an urban public school. Denver’s superintendent sends his children to school in Boulder, “one of America’s wealthiest enclaves.” Emanuel and Christie don’t send their children to public school at all.

Before he gets to Emanuel and Christie, Sirota rails against Boasberg thusly:

“From the confines of his distant castle in Boulder, he issues edicts to his low-income fiefdom — decrees demonizing teachers, shutting down neighborhood schools over community objections and promoting privately administered charter schools. Meanwhile, he makes sure his own royal family is insulated in a wealthy district that doesn’t experience his destructive policies.”

This story fits neatly into the narrative that Occupy Wall Street (thankfully) shot into the national consciousness. We are a society that is not just divided but split in two. Sirota writes,

“there really are ‘Two Americas,’ as the saying goes — and that’s no accident. It’s the result of a permanent elite that is removing itself from the rest of the nation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in education — a realm in which this elite physically separates itself from us mere serfs.”

I should say right now that I was raised to take my place among the elite. I grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I was schooled through sixth grade at Ramaz – a Jewish house of learning that is by its very nature exclusive – where half the day was spent on Hebrew and Judaic studies and the other half on social studies, math, sciences and language arts, with art class, chorus, gym and recess to boot. By Grade 4, I enjoyed an 8-hour school day. It was rigorous. The English Language Learners spoke Hebrew, so they mopped the floor with the rest of us for half the day. I didn’t have to think about poor people, or black people – unless you count the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia. (Though my outstanding fifth- and sixth-grade Language Arts teacher, Mr. Sandomir, a Queens College graduate who is still teaching, once handed me a fat, worn copy of John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom. That’s a moment I often remember, not only on Martin Luther King Day.)

From there, I went to what is arguably the finest independent school in the country, Horace Mann School. Nearly every one of my teachers had a master’s from Teachers College. I learned with African-American and Hispanic and Latino kids for the first time. I also met super rich kids. One named Jordan lived in the Pierre when his parents’ home was being renovated. Another named James played banjo, wore torn jeans and Birkenstocks, and managed my soccer team sophomore year – something students did to get out of gym. He drove me home once (he didn’t take the bus) in a used red Jeep Wrangler with a Steal Your Face sticker on the back window. His last name was Murdoch. I went to bar mitzvahs at the Helmsley Palace and Tavern on the Green. Central Park was my front yard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art – where I think you can still get in for a penny donation – was where I’d hang out on rainy weekends.

Of course someone like me is going to think public schools aren’t good enough, especially when confronted daily with stories of our failing school system. But when you’re part of shaping education policy, you should have to answer for it. That’s one of Sirota’s big gripes:

“In many cases, these aristocrats aren’t even required to publicly explain themselves. (Boasberg, for example, is never hounded by local media about why he refuses to live in Denver.) Worse, on the rare occasions that questions are posed, privacy is the oft-used excuse to not answer, whether it’s Obama defenders dismissing queries about their Sidwell decision, Christie telling a voter his school choices are ‘none of your business’ or Emanuel storming out of a television interview and then citing his ‘private life’ when asked about the issue.

This might be a convincing argument about ordinary citizens’ personal education choices, but it’s an insult coming from public officials. …Pretending this is acceptable or just a ‘private’ decision, then, is to tolerate ancient, ruling-class notions that are no longer sustainable in the 21st century. …”

I would go a step further than Sirota. First off, political leaders are ordinary citizens. Second, ordinary citizens’ personal education choices are public choices, even when those citizens aren’t brave enough to talk about those choices to the local press.

Our decisions as “parents of choice” – as we are labeled by North Avenue – about what neighborhoods to live in and whom to let our children learn with have public effects. If my husband and I choose to send our son to an expensive private school, or to send him to a boutique charter school, or to make the local public school a top choice – those choices get in everybody’s business. That may be especially true in a small town like Baltimore. But it’s no less true in Chicago or New York City or Washington, D.C. We – all of us ordinary citizens with children – can’t say we want our children to grow up in a more just world, one that is more equal, more tolerant, more sustainable, if we keep making choices that reproduce the status quo.

The places Americans create for learning reflect who we are as a people. They shape who our children will become and the context in which they will live. No place more accurately embodies the world we are making for our children than the neighborhood public school. So maybe it’s time for parents who can afford better to stop asking whether they can use the public schools, and start asking how our public schools can use them.

***

For more on the topic of wealthy public figures excluding themselves from the school communities most affected by their policies, see “The Best Posts About Public Officials (& Non-Elected ‘Reformers’) Sending Their Children To Private Schools” on Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day. For more video showing how Emanuel and Christie have fielded kids’ schooling questions, watch this. As always, comments are welcome.

November 30, 2011

In the Baltimore Fishbowl with Morgan State’s Ray Winbush – Outtakes

I hadn’t much thought about the racial dimensions of education reform before October 20, 2011, when I went to the Enoch Pratt Free Library for an event put together by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore. They have been running a series of discussions called “Talking About Race.” The twelfth – on educating black boys – seemed tangentially relevant to me, a person who blogs about education. I wrote up my notes here and promised to follow up with more from Ray Winbush.

I’ve kept my promise. A short thread from what was around a 6,000 word interview featured yesterday on the homepage of Baltimore Fishbowl. 

What else happens when you get a white mom living in Hampden together with a black professor from Morgan State for a little interview on race, education, and the future of public schooling in Baltimore? This.

Your 140-character-or-less Twitter profile describes you as “a person attempting to replace white supremacy with justice.” What do you mean by that? And how does education fit into that personal mission?

I believe – and it’s not just me believing, it’s not a religion, but – there is a system of white supremacy. And what we want to do is just analyze people who are victims of that system. So it’s easier to say ‘there’s something wrong with black boys’ rather than look at the entire system of white supremacy.

I believe that the worst thing a person can experience on earth is injustice. What I try to do is bring out the issues of racism, of white supremacy, that are impacting the individual or the institution. And hopefully people will be motivated to do something about it.

I mean, Dr. King replaced white supremacy with justice. Rosa Parks did it. I’m putting more fancy words to it, but Malcolm X did that. So did John Brown. And I think wherever there’s racial injustice it should be replaced. That’s the one white people often find difficult to do and black people often times are reluctant to do.

Right. So, what do you think we can replace it with? What does that look like?

With justice. Justice means that everybody literally is treated fairly and equal. The European symbol of justice in this country at least – is a woman that is blind with a balance in her hand meaning that she doesn’t see who’s in front of her. She just weighs it the way the evidence is. I know it sounds simple but how it looks is that everyone is simply treated equally. Fairly. That no one is judged by his or her skin color. And that’s difficult to do. A tangible example is that the jury that is deliberating right now with Conrad Murray [pop star Michael Jackson’s doctor] consists of seven whites, four Hispanics, and one black person. The Constitution of the United States says that you should be judged by a jury of your peers. Clearly the Constitution didn’t take into consideration black people, but only in rare instances will you find a white male being judged in the reverse – like seven blacks – I can’t imagine a white male being in a jury that only has one white person on it.

There are imbalances in our society. Rosa Parks shouldn’t have had to have sat in the back of the bus. So she replaced white supremacy with justice.

So it can be just a moment.

It can be the moment, exactly. When Gandhi was thrown off the train in South Africa, simply because he was Indian and he was dark he was thrown off the train. In that moment Gandhi says, we’re not gonna do this anymore. So oftentimes, the movement to replace white supremacy with justice it comes in a moment. Or it can be planned. The ones that tend to be the most impactful are the ones that occur in a moment.

I had tweeted at you about segregation and the desegregation of schools…

I’m a psychologist by trade. One famous psychologist who I’m sure you’ve heard of, Alfred Adler, –  he was the one who coined the term inferiority and superiority complex – He had another term that was just as intriguing as far as I’m concerned, and it was known as fictional finalism. And he says that human beings tend to put out lofty ideals in their personal lives and in their public lives, which sound so wonderful but in reality it’s impossible to achieve.

One could argue that even what I just said – replacing white supremacy with justice – is a fictional finalism. The idea that Adler has that we put these ideals up there and we strive for them even though we know it’s not gonna happen 100 percent.

So to desegregate Baltimore City Public Schools could be classified as a “fictional finalism.” It sounds good. It sounds wonderful. So did “to desegregate the public schools of the United States of America with all deliberate speed” in Brown v. Board. It happened and it didn’t happen.

Because as we know when Brown was issued in 1954  – and one of my colleagues at Harvard talks about this all the time – there were two seemingly unrelated events that occurred at the same time. Brown went down in 1954 and the building up of the interstate highways expanded under Eisenhower. So whites then had access to the suburbs, and that’s when you see suburbs growing. Towson in 1950 – it was like nothing. It was just nothing! White people fled the inner city because of desegregation and they fled even faster after the urban rebellions of the 1960s. And the interstate system facilitated that.

[The conversation turns to teaching teachers to educate African-American children.]

When I taught at Vanderbilt it was so common for me – Vanderbilt as you know is called like “the Harvard of the South” – you know, and I taught there for fourteen years. True story – one of the girls in my class told me I was the first black professor she’d had and it was her sophomore year. It is impossible for a black person or a Latino to grow up in America and go to their sophomore year of college go to a class and never ever have a white teacher. It’s impossible.

Right. Right.

And if it does happen it’s so incredibly rare that it’s like a sighting of the abominable snowman.

The point is that whites who negotiate, who sincerely, sincerely – There’s a story in my book, I talk about a white teacher – this is a true story – it happened when I was teaching at Vanderbilt – she just simply could not teach black kids. She didn’t know how!

Johns Hopkins School of Education is not gonna teach you a damn thing – and I can be quoted on that – not a damn thing about really educating black inner city kids. It really isn’t.

Morgan will. And I’m not saying that as a biased participant. It’s just a fact that Morgan knows how to teach teachers to teach black students better than at Johns Hopkins or the University of Maryland or whatever.

So do you think Teach for America students should be getting their M.A.T.s at Morgan rather than at Johns Hopkins?

In my opinion, yes! You know, if, IF, they’re going to be teaching black, red, or brown children. You see, if they’re going to teach Hampden kids – and there’s nothing wrong with Hampden kids – they can keep it, you know, at Johns Hopkins.

You would be surprised by how many emails I get in a given month, about ten a month, from white kids and black kids who have been in the city schools and they said my entire education has been totally irrelevant, has been totally irrelevant. And Dr. Winbush I’ve read your book, tell me what to do. Ivory [Toldson] gets the same kind of emails. Most of us who write – it’s just the way it is. Schools of education – they don’t change easy.

Mortimer Adler – I did my doctorate at the University of Chicago and Mortimer Adler, who taught there for many, many years – said ‘Changing a university is like moving a graveyard.’ And I thought that simple sentence is so true. The oldest institutions in the western world are universities. Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne, Harvard is one of the oldest institutions in this country, in fact. And universities outlast and outlive everything. But they’re very reluctant to change. Schools of Education are part of universities. And even though we see the browning of America, the blackening of America – we are still teaching stuff like this is “father knows best,” you know, 2.5 kids with a picket fence in the inner city. It doesn’t make any sense. But universities don’t change.

[Conversation veers in many directions. We talk about race blindness. Teaching kids about race. The intersections of race and class. I end with some word associations.]

Black.

White.

White.

Black.

Gray.

Neutral.

African American.

American African.

Achievement gap.

Racism.

Charter school.

(pause) Better than nothing.

Vouchers.

(pause) Could be racist.

Accountability.

Overused word.

Standardized tests.

Racist.

Common Core.

Racist.

Neighborhood school.

Great idea.

Segregation.

Apartheid.

Integration.

Two-edged sword.

Privatization.

Two-edged sword.

 “The soft bigotry of low expectations.”

One of my favorite expressions.

Really?

Yeah.

You know that comes out of George W. Bush.

That’s the only thing I ever quote from him.

So John Legend, and a bunch of other people, mostly white guys, talk about education reform as “the civil rights issue of our time.”

Rhetoric. Of course it is, but it always has been a civil rights issue. It’s just that now because whites are seeing the increasing deterioration of the public school system and the economy is bad now we gotta say, we gotta make some money, we gotta get something outta this thing.

[Correction: I’d originally said Usher was among the celebrities who claimed education reform was the civil rights issue of our time. It was John Legend.]

October 24, 2011

Breaking the Barriers: Talking About Race in Baltimore

Baltimore in Black and White from Urbanite. Thanks to Michael Corbin for the tip.

A number of heavy hitters in education reform name closing the achievement gap as a driving mission. They’re mostly white. Because I was curious about whether closing that gap was in itself a driver for education reform-minded African Americans, I made my way to the Enoch Pratt Free Library on the night of October 20 to listen to two black male professors tackle the subject of black male achievement.

The event was called “Breaking the Barriers: Helping Black Males Achieve Academic Success,” the twelfth event in the Open Society Institute -Baltimore‘s Talking About Race series. The panelists: Ivory Toldson, associate professor at Howard University, and Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. The moderator: Shawn Dove, campaign manager for the Open Society Campaign for Black Male Achievement.

In the first answer of the night, Toldson questioned the “achievement gap” talk in precisely the way I was hoping someone would:

“…I started my research because I wanted us to talk about race – particularly as it pertains to African-American males – much differently than I’d seen it represented in the media. One of the things I noticed when I first started research related to African-American male achievement was the absence of the word ‘achievement.’ Most of it had something to do with ‘failure.’ It had something to do with an ‘achievement gap.’ …What I wanted to do was look at black males who were achieving…

You can listen to the event on the Enoch Pratt Library’s website. Here’s a look at my notebook:

Toldson:
Root cause of underachievement: There’s a disconnect between young black males and their teachers.
Nationwide, 63 percent of the teaching force is white female.
Teachers in urban schools come from outside the communities they serve. Understanding the nuances of the community is necessary to give context to behavior. (Result = unnecessary suspensions.)

Winbush:
The system of racism – and how black males fit into it globally – is something we need to talk about. We need to fix the system of racism.

Toldson:
The Justice Policy Institute Report came out in 2002 saying more blacks were in prison than in college by a margin of 100,000. That was up for debate then. Twelve years later, that finding has never been replicated.
There are more than 400,000 black men in college now than there are black men in prison. But we’re still operating with old data. And while the 100,000 number might rile up activists from inside the black community, it feeds negative perception from the outside (most importantly, among the white female teachers who are tasked with teaching black boys). “We need real-time data to change perception,” he says.

Winbush:
Likens teaching blacks to teaching in a foreign country. You need to know the history, the language, the culture to teach effectively.

Toldson:
Responds to a question about the school-to-prison pipeline. (See his report, Breaking Barriers 2.) Talks about unfair expulsions and suspensions. (Calls it “push-out”).

Sixty-six percent of suspensions are of students who don’t understand the material or who aren’t socialized to the environment.

Recommends policy change: Stop suspensions for academic reasons (e.g., repeated lateness, “last straw” suspensions). End “zero tolerance” language. Zero tolerance doesn’t work.

FACT: There are more blacks in prison now than were released from slavery. 

Toldson:
Nationally, 1.8% of teachers are black males. While the percentage in Baltimore may be higher, it needs to be 6% nationally to reflect percentage of black males in the United States.

Too few blacks are graduating high school. 16% of blacks have a B.A., as opposed to 30% of whites.

* * *

Listen to the whole thing if you have some time. My notes heavily skew toward Toldson’s comments over those of Winbush – an imbalance I plan to correct in another post. (UPDATE: See “The Failure of Desegregation in Baltimore City Schools: An Interview with Ray Winbush,” by Edit Barry, for Baltimore Fishbowl, Nov. 29, 2011) In the meantime, here are some potentially useful links:

Published Reports

Breaking Barriers: Plotting the Path to Academic Success for School-Age African-American Males [PDF]

Breaking Barriers 2: Plotting the Path Away from Juvenile Detention and Toward Academic Success for School-age African American Males [PDF]

Cellblocks or Classrooms?: The Funding of Higher Education and Corrections and Its Impact on African American Men [PDF]

Notable Organizations and Programs

Books Mentioned

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen

The Isis Papers by Dr. Frances Cress Welsing

The Warrior Method: A Parents’ Guide to Rearing Healthy Black Boys by Raymond Winbush, PhD

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