Posts tagged ‘school choice’

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.

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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.”

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 17, 2011

Neighborhood Public Schools Are Where It’s At

A detail of the mural outside The Barclay School in Charles Village. Photo credit: Adam Bednar, North Baltimore Patch

Here’s some brain food to tide you over between now and the end of Thanksgiving Weekend. (I’m going on vacation.)

There’s a lot of good stuff on the problems with top-down education reform in Dana Goldstein‘s extended essay on Occupy Wall Street and public education, published yesterday in The Awl. Here’s the choicest bit:

… the 1-percent education reformers must truly grasp, deep in their bones, that we need to provide every child with a decent education—not just the ones who attend charter schools, or choice schools, or whose parents can afford to move to the suburbs or live in Tribeca. This means we should focus reform efforts on traditional neighborhood schools

I actually don’t care whether the one percent grasp it or not. But it’s time for what there is of Baltimore’s middle and aspiring classes to realize that neighborhood schools are where it’s at. (I’m for dropping the “traditional” label, so entrepreneurially trained bureaucrats might begin to admit that neighborhood schools can innovate.) The more people get riled up to support their zoned schools, the better. Especially if those people might actually send their children to those schools.

Speaking of not giving up on neighborhood schools, did you see the Charles Village schools piece Adam Bednar wrote for North Baltimore Patch? It’s about the Village Parents’ efforts to draw middle class families to Margaret Brent and Barclay. Check this out:

“A big part of the challenge is to get people that live in the neighborhood to come through the door,” said [Melanie] Cornelisse, a former teacher who runs the elementary school’s Story Pals and Math Matches volunteer programs.

…Cornelisse, who has a son in a Margaret Brent pre-kindergarten class, said the group is still trying to figure out which parents are most likely to send their kids to public schools.

While Charles Village is a middle-class neighborhood, Cornelisse pointed out that 94 percent of Margaret Brent’s students receive free or reduced meals. That would indicate a substantial number of families are sending their children to private or charter schools.

But in doing so, those parents may be missing out on the benefits of attending a neighborhood public school, she said.

If you live in Charles Village or RemingtonBolton Hill, or Hampden/Wyman Park, and you think you might become one of “those parents,” click the relevant link and find some good people who are rallying around your neighborhood school(s). Parents in Federal Hill are on the neighborhood school tip, too. There are probably other groups out there that I don’t know about. You can always dial your zoned school directly to find out if there are ways to help out. Use the school locator on Baltimore City Public Schools website and give your school a call. Talk to someone. Take a look. And get involved (before the 1-percenters do it for you).

November 13, 2011

CEO Andrés Alonso Promotes the Push for School Choice in Baltimore City

CEO Andrés A. Alonso, Ed.D., sent out an email on November 9 with the subject line “Great Event: Please Join Me on Saturday November 19!” It’s the School Choice Fair. And it’s his favorite.

This is my favorite City Schools event because it offers a glimpse—like no other occasion or news release can—into the incredible range of learning opportunities available to our students and families, and into the nature of our partnership with our families around the choices they make. More than five dozen schools with middle and high school grades will be on display, with students and staff on hand to answer your questions and provide detailed information about their programs.

Come to the fair and learn about single-gender schools and combined middle-high schools, and dozens of schools with a unique theme or distinct academic focus: schools with visual and performing arts programs; career programs in health care, hospitality and broadcast production; STEM (science, technology engineering and math) and robotics programs; foreign languages; environmental and green themes. Find out where students can go to develop leadership skills, join debate teams and learn to play chess from national champions. Come celebrate with me—and with students and families across the city—the great things happening in City Schools.

Readers of this blog already know that I have a lot of questions about the push for school choice. (You can read the “If the School Fits” series I posted back in the summer, starting here.) But I’d love to hear from parents of middle school and high school students who are loving this whole push. (And those who aren’t.)

Do you want options? If so, how many? Is an event at a baseball stadium – with representatives from 65 schools – intimate enough? Or would you rather have one-on-one or small group middle and high school choice advising sessions at your current school?  Say, someone who knows your child’s interests and abilities? Is there someone at your school who does that? Does it even matter? Will your children just go where their friends go? Or where your friends are sending their children? Or wherever is closest? How old was your child when you started to think about middle and high school options?

All comments welcome.

Edit

P.S. For those who are interested, the 2012-13 School Choice Fair is scheduled for Saturday, November 19, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Related Posts

If the School Fits: Opening a Conversation About School Choice in Baltimore

If the School Fits: The Hospital Analogy

If the School Fits: Who’s Pounding the Drum?

If the School Fits: Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Choice?

“Portfolio”: The Vocabulary of Education Reform in Baltimore City – Lesson One 

 

 

August 31, 2011

Who Says Education Reform Is the ‘Civil Rights Issue of Our Time’?

Little Rock, August 20, 1959. Rally at state capitol, protesting the integration of Central High School. (Image via Oxford African American Studies Center, courtesy of the Library of Congress)

“The civil rights issue of our time.” “The civil rights issue of this generation.” “The civil rights issue of this era.” You’d have to be living in a soundproof booth to avoid the echo of civil rights talk these days. Only it isn’t coming from civil rights leaders. (Just as the language of “choice” isn’t coming from liberal feminists anymore.) It’s coming from Juan Williams (watch) and Steve Brill (listen) around issues of education reform – particularly school choice and, per Slate, “breaking unions’ grip on public education.” 

John McCain made the very same claim about education during his presidential campaign. Here’s a little Q&A from the Saddleback Church Civil Forum on the Presidency hosted by evangelical pastor Rick Warren in August 2008, the first forum held with the candidates after they’d become their parties’ presumptive nominees:

WARREN: Let’s talk about education. America ranks 19th in high school graduations, but we’re first in incarcerations. Everybody says they want more accountability in schools.

MCCAIN: Um-hum.

WARREN: About 80 percent of America says they support merit pay for the best teachers. Now, I don’t want to hear your stump speech on education.

MCCAIN: Yes, yes, and find bad teachers another line of work. (APPLAUSE).

WARREN: You know, we’re going to end this, you’re answering so quickly. You want to play a game of poker?

MCCAIN: Can I — choice and competition, choice and competition, home schooling, charter schools, vouchers, all the choice and competition. I want — look, I want every American family to have the same choice that Cindy and I made and Senator Obama and Mrs. Obama made as well, and that was, we wanted to send our children to the school of our choice. And charter schools work, my friends. Home schooling works. Vouchers in our nation’s capital works. We’ve got thousands of people in Washington, D.C., that are applying for a voucher system. New York City is reforming.

I go back to New Orleans. They were — as we know, the tragedy devastated them. They have over 30 charter schools in the city of New Orleans, and guess what? It’s all coming up. It’s all coming up. It’s a simple principle, but it’s going to take dedicated men and women, particularly in the teaching profession, to make it happen.

And by the way, here — I won’t go any further, but the point is… it is the civil rights issue of the 21st century

McCain said it again during his speech at the Republican National Convention. (Read.) And he said it again during the third and final presidential debate against Barack Obama. (Click.) It was one of the few ways in which McCain didn’t try to distance himself from George W. Bush in Election ’08. After all, it was Bush who first said it, in January 2002.

Now, I think it’s kind of awesome to hear Republicans talk about education as a civil right. And yet I can’t help feeling there’s some hoodwinking going on when Steve Brill starts attributing the notion to Democrats (by which he means Democrats for Education Reform) and President Barack Obama.

This is from the transcript of Brill’s appearance on the Diane Rhem Show, during which he responds to a 62-year-old black grandmother in Cleveland who says, “I know Republicans want our children back into separate and unequal”:

BRILL

11:30:49
The only thing I will say is that it’s not the Republicans now who are leading the reform movement. Barack Obama’s not a Republican, Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, is not a Republican. There are dozens of examples….
So it’s a much more mixed situation, you know, than just a bunch of Republicans, you know, trying to go after unions. And there are many very sincere people in the Civil Rights community, Barack Obama being one of them, who consider this to be the Civil Rights issue of our time, fixing the schools. (emphasis mine)

To be sure, Obama’s turn from the education plan he laid out in 2007-08, with advice from Stanford University education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond, to the one being put forward today, under the leadership of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has soured many public school teachers and parents on his administration. (They thought they’d elected Obama on education. But they got something more like candidate McCain.) The bait-and-switch pissed enough people off that thousands gathered on the White House Ellipse on July 30, 2011 for the Save Our Schools Rally and March.

I was there. One of the most passionate speeches I heard was made by Jonathan Kozol, the author of Savage Inequalities and Illiterate America. His was a fiery, fist-pounding show that hinged on a damning accusation aimed straight at Arne Duncan:

Secretary Duncan, Arne Duncan [CROWD BOOS] has turned his back entirely on the precious legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. [APPLAUSE] Instead, he’s very, very busy trying to do Plessy v. Ferguson. Mr. Duncan, listen to me. Mr. Duncan, separate and unequal has never been successful. It didn’t work in the century just passed and it will not work in the century ahead. And anyone who tells himself otherwise is lying to himself and to the people of America.”

According to Kozol, Arne Duncan is restoring a system of segregation to America’s public schools. Steve Brill would like to have Democratic voters believe that, too. (Especially the ones who belong to the politically omnipotent teachers’ unions.)

But it’s a far more serious accusation coming from Jonathan Kozol. Because if Obama’s base starts to believe that the resegregation of public schools is the doing of the Obama administration, boy, the Democrats are in big trouble in 2012.

So let’s dig a little deeper, for the sake of all my new friends in the SOS March twitterverse. This resegregation problem didn’t start with Arne Duncan. We’d have it even if Obama had appointed Linda Darling-Hammond to the post of U.S. Secretary of Education. The problem is the Supreme Court.

Rewind to the 2007 NAACP Presidential Primary Forum, held July 12, 2007. The question is about the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down school integration plans put forth by school boards in Louisville, Ky. and Seattle, Wash. in June of that year. This Q&A is with then-candidate Barack Obama. The transcript is from OnTheIssues.org.

Q: In light of the recent anti-integration Supreme Court decision, please tell us what would you do to promote an equal opportunity and integration in American public schools and how would you ensure that the courts would hand down more balanced opinions

A: The Supreme Court was wrong. These were local school districts that had voluntarily made a determination that all children would be better off if they learned together. The notion that this Supreme Court would equate that with the segregation as tasked would make Thurgood Marshall turn in his grave. Which is why I’m glad I voted against Alito & voted against Roberts. But let’s remember that we also have a crisis in all our schools that have to be fixed, whether they’re integrated or not. We’ve got to have early childhood education. We’ve got to fix crumbling schools. We’ve got to have an excellent teacher in front of every classroom. We’ve got to make college affordable. The Supreme Court doesn’t have to order that. We can do that ourselves.

Did you get that? Obama said, “whether they’re integrated or not.” This is the kind of progressive pragmatism that defines Barack Obama’s leadership. He is not an idealist. He never was. Idealists, like Jonathan Kozol and Martin Luther King, Jr., set out a vision of greatness – a dream – and measure the world against it. The world never measures up. Progressive pragmatists, like Barack Obama, deal in the world as it is, and figure out practical ways “of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today.”

(There’s the finer line dividing groups like Parents Across America (PAA) from Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). There are other, fatter ones, of course. But if you get past DFER’s Whitney Tilson “ripping” people like Gary Orfield of the UCLA Civil Rights Project and dismissing Jonathan Kozol’s concurrence on the civil rights slant against charters as “dimwitted,” you see someone who believes he’s doing the right thing.)

Back to Obama’s response to the NAACP. Beyond expressing his own pragmatism, he’s saying we need to take responsibility. We need to correct the problem with our schools. We do. We can do it without the Supreme Court. Because the Supreme Court that made integration the civil rights issue of Martin Luther King’s time, and Vernon Jordan’s time, and Thurgood Marshall’s time? That’s not today’s Supreme Court. So – and this is me talking now – if the NAACP wants to take the fight against the segregating effects of the market segmentation that results from “choice and competition” to the Supreme Court, public education is finished. Game over. We’re going to keep getting the same 5-4 result. Just take a look at the mug shots in the justice lineup at the bottom of this Oyez piece on Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. (Read and scroll.)

Here’s another twist. During the current Baltimore City mayoral campaign, candidate Frank Conaway has said on numerous occasions that he came out of segregated schools, and he came out pretty well. He said so again at the League of Women Voters debate at the Enoch Pratt Library last night. Some blacks look back fondly on the education they got before Brown v. Board. It’s odd, isn’t it? Independent schools trip over themselves to introduce diversity into their classrooms while parents in public schools have to fight to hold on to integrated classrooms. Baltimore-son Thurgood Marshall probably is rolling over in his grave. (Did you feel that earthquake?)

To sum up: In 2002, Republicans appropriated the language of civil rights for the purposes of radically changing public education as we know it. They kept doing it in 2007-08. Now the Right is telling the media that it’s not only the Right that feels education reform is a civil rights issue, but the Left feels school choice is a civil rights issue, too. If the Left feels that way, and we start fighting these battles through the courts, we’ll lose. And anyway, there are black Democrats who actually don’t much care to guard against the disintegration of Brown v. Board.

Here’s what I think: The Milton Friedman-inspired ideology of market-based competition that’s behind school choice is anathema to the whole idea of civil rights – which implies a great deal of the kind of government protection that the libertarian freedom fighters Juan Williams has been hanging out with feel are obstacles, if not shackles, to the American way.

I mentioned market segmentation. It’s a different animal from segregation. In injecting competition and choice into the public school ecosystem, we’re going to Social Darwinist route. Only the strong survive. But more than that, those who survive are those who find a niche. Competition and choice imply a free market, where there is no regulation. That means no affirmative action policies, no quotas, no demands by government for private or semi-private entities to address inequity. I know this is going to get me into trouble, but it means niched schools where white gentry moms and aspirational middle class black and brown moms strive to send their kids. And generic public schools where the weak and the poor wind up.

If we feel this country is in the midst of creating an educational landscape far from our highest ideals – and I do – the answer won’t come from the courts. And it won’t come from the White House. And it won’t come from corporate philanthropists or Democrat hedge fund managers. It won’t come from union leaders, either.

The power is idling at the grass roots. It’s time we rip it up.

August 2, 2011

If the School Fits: Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Choice?

Watch out for this graphic from The Simpsons in Sheena Iyengar's TED talk.

The previous post in this series draws attention to the social, political, and investment capital behind the push for charter schools in Baltimore. It presents as a real possibility the overrunning of the Baltimore City Public School System with dozens upon dozens of options.

This line of thinking isn’t going where some readers might expect – to an argument that denies students and parents the agency to choose where to go or send their children to school. That caricature of reasoning is polarizing the debate between education reform advocates and their most vocal critics. Attentive readers will find more subtlety in these posts.

For the sake of appreciating the ideas presented in this one, forget whether you believe in public schools, or charter schools, or school choice. Forget if you’re agnostic as to the delivery mechanism of a great education. Forget all the metaphysical talk for a moment and put on your secular consumer cap. Then chew on this:

Does having 12 or 22 or 34 or 61 choices make your life any better, or happier, or more fulfilling than if you had, say, two? 

Psychologists, behavioral economists, and entrepreneurs have spent a good deal of intellectual energy on the problem of excessive choice. I spent a few minutes compiling links. Choose one:

I’m only half kidding. You will spend well over an hour on your computer if you watch and read all this content. If you’re interested in the issue of school choice – as a critic or a booster – I promise that engaging with this stuff is worth your while. A few minutes of skimming is all it takes to learn that some highly educated western minds are beginning to see holes in the conventional wisdom around the goodness of consumer choice.

Follow these links and you’ll find a few TED talks as well as references to books and peer reviewed journal articles by Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz, Stanford University psychology professor Hazel Rose Markus, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University Nicole Stephens, Krishna Savani of Columbia University, Sheena Iyengar, Ph.D., a management professor at Columbia University Business School, Mark Lepper, Ph.D., another psychology professor at Stanford University, social psychologist Alexander Chernev, Ph.D., also of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, Ph.D. (Click his name to learn where he went to elementary and high school.)

Explore. And stay tuned.

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July 22, 2011

If the School Fits: The Hospital Analogy

Like schools, some hospitals have mascots. This adorable photo is from the University of Missouri Children's Hospital.

SteveK writes, “No school can be all things to all children.” There’s a truism. It’s kind of like saying no hospital can be all things to all patients. Here’s a brief meditation on this analogy.

How Is a Public School Like a Hospital?

The challenge of operating a public school and a hospital are similar in that both institutions have an obligation – call it ethical or professional, doesn’t matter – to improve the life of everyone who walks in the door. So they offer a range of programs and they employ a staff of generalists and specialists capable of customizing approaches to a broad range of cases.

Every so often, a hospital is presented with a case that another hospital would be better equipped to handle. The same goes for schools. The story of Matthew Sprowal – the boy who was counseled out of a New York City charter school and into one that turned out to be a great fit – is one example. But here’s where the hospital analogy begins to fray, and with it, this particular argument for school choice.

When a particularly difficult case presents itself, a hospital can arrange for more appropriate treatment at another hospital in our relatively loose health care system. That’s an excellent option to have. But despite the current push for school choice in Baltimore City, and the relatively rapid proliferation of charter schools here, less than a month ago, on June 28, 2011, the Baltimore City School Board approved a policy that strictly limits this ability. Per section I.5:

Once a student is admitted to a public charter school, a student or guardian may not be asked or counseled to leave for reasons related to academic performance, behavior, or attendance unless consistent with City Schools Discipline Policy and City Schools Code of Conduct.

(You can download the Word document of the policy from this page of the Supporting Public Schools of Choice website, thanks to Carol Beck.)

The way school choice works now, the act of choosing is limited to the application process. It’s a consumer model. You go to the market, stand in the aisle, and weigh your options. You may have preferences based on what you’ve heard from friends, or seen online, or read in brochures and ads. But this analogy breaks down, too. Because with schools – unlike with cereal or shoes or cars or any other consumer product – you’re limited to one. And you can’t really switch tomorrow if you don’t like it. (Then there’s the lottery issue to contend with.)

If the argument for choice is that every child is unique, then – barring the absurdity of a school for every child – the system has to provide the individualized attention that would get every student into the “best fit” school. Sometimes that won’t happen on the first try – especially when you’re talking about four- and five-year-olds whose strengths and weaknesses are only beginning to emerge. (This touches criticisms of the kind of testing that goes on in selective private school admissions.) If choice is to work to improve the life of the individual child, then educators – professionals, not just parents or guardians – need to take part in the work of getting every single child into the best school for them. That’s an extremely tall order.

If you want to argue that Matthew Sprowal’s story is a great argument for school choice, you have to concede that it wasn’t simply “choice” that made his life better. It was the involvement of his mother and school administrators in the act of choosing. When you take counseling out of the picture, all you’re left with is a consumerist system driven by competition and market trends. That’s hardly conducive to the kind of collaboration across schools that would be needed to find each student the best fit. Which can leave a thoughtful person wondering if individualizing public education is the true intention of the school choice movement at all.

What do you think?

Related Posts
A Taste of Cherry Picking

If the School Fits: Opening a Conversation About School Choice in Baltimore

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools

July 19, 2011

If the School Fits: Opening a Conversation About School Choice in Baltimore

On July 12, I posted some thoughts on a New York Times article by Michael Winerip about what happened when a charter school “counseled out” a five-year-old boy. Thanks to a fighter of a mom, the child was counseled into a neighborhood school that turned out to be a great fit.

Critics of status quo education reform policies pounced on the story because 1) it’s case in which public trumped charter and small class size trumped larger, 2) it’s a perfect example of how charter schools weed out students who don’t fit their mold, 3) it put a sympathetic face on an argument that’s too often lost in the numbers – numbers that show charter schools enroll fewer homeless students and students living in poverty, fewer students with special needs, and fewer English language learners than “traditional” public schools. The Winerip story adds the human dimension.

I opined that the story is a good argument for individual attention – by which I meant the kind of attention that got this student into the right school for him. It’s also a good argument for differentiated instruction – teaching to all levels and types of learner in the same classroom. But, I opined, the question of creating a public school system rife with choices is still subject to debate.

I got a response that set my brain working. Here it is:

Actually, this article is a solid argument for schools of choice. No school can be all things to all children. The schools involved and the family in this situation have discovered this and the child is where he can now get the best services. I see this as a win.

Those of us who have the luxury of using independent schools have known this for some time; we just have the resources and interest to choose the right schools for our children. With charter schools offering options, now everyone else has the same benefits.

That’s a lot to unpack. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on school choice in hopes of opening up the conversation. In the meantime, post your reactions. And subscribe to stay tuned.

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