Sunday, April 10, 2011

What can schools do?

 I've not written about education before but as a parent with kids in 6th and 4th grade in Oakland, CA public schools it is something I think about a lot. The schools in Oakland have a lot of challenges including very high levels of poverty and ever shrinking funding. In the national debate the problem always seems to be teachers and the solutions always seems to be destroying unions and starting charter schools. In the context of that debate an article in today's New York Times Magazine about a middle school in the South Bronx is a welcome reminder of how much more complex things really are. (I was particularly interested because I am a product of New York City public schools K-12.)

The principal, Ramon Gonzalez, seems like an amazing person who is fighting everyday to keep kids in school, help his teachers be better, and make his school a place of refuge in a very tough neighborhood. Yet he has to fend off his own superiors to prevent them from sticking a charter school in his building. The article makes a number of critical points about the current education debate.

First, charters are not the answer. We already know (pdf) that charters perform no better, and in some measures worse than conventional public schools. This is also true specifically in New York. Moreover, those schools that do succeed often have the benefit of more funding than public schools, often via private support.

The Times article also points out another troubling aspect of charter schools. The growing number of charters, which have been pushed hard in New York "skims off the neighborhood’s more ambitious, motivated families." Those schools "distinct advantage over 223, though. Their families have already chosen to be at a charter and have often jumped through numerous hoops to get there. This makes it easier for charters to create their own cultures. They can define the length of their days, dictate exactly how children dress and enforce strict codes of conduct. Those students — scholars, in charter parlance — who fall out of line don’t last." And where do they go, the regular public school of course. Moreover, while the idea of choice sounds great where does it leave children whose parents are not, whether because of poverty, lack of education, substance abuse, mental health issues, or any other reason, not able to do the research and advocacy that such systems require?

At the same time "as failing schools are shut down around González, a steady stream of children with poor intellectual habits and little family support continues to arrive at 223." To his credit, Principal Gonzalez "wouldn’t want it any other way — he takes pride in his school’s duty to educate all comers." However, the reality is that "the endless flow of under-performing students drags down test scores, demoralizes teachers and makes the already daunting challenge of transforming 223 into a successful school, not just a relatively successful one, that much more difficult."

Principal Gonzalez also points out that by destroying the idea of the neighborhood school you lose something both in the school and the neighborhood. He says "I don’t want to be part of the history of taking talented kids out of the neighborhoods and telling them to move on."

There are a few complaints about union rules, but for the most part it is about a partnership between teachers and the principal, and one that seems to be working. He does not see the Teach for American phenomenon as magic either.

“First-year teachers are pretty much useless,” González says. “To me, the ideal teacher is a third-year Teach for America teacher.” The problem, at least from where González sits, is that Teach for America requires only a two-year commitment. It entices the best applicants not only with the promise of changing lives in impoverished schools but also by presenting itself as a résumé-builder for elite institutions like Harvard Business School and McKinsey & Company. “I’m trying to build people who are going to stay, who want to work with our kids,” González says. “This isn’t where they’re starting their careers; this is their life. We’ve had plenty of brilliant people here from organizations like Teach for America, and they lasted two years, because their hearts weren’t in it. I can’t afford that. That’s hurtful to our kids.”
Perhaps most important there is a fundamental recognition that poverty is "an immutable obstacle in the path of improving public education, one that can’t simply be swept aside by the rhetoric of raised expectations." Amen. Sadly, given the current situation in Washington and state capitals the kind of attention that these complex problems require seem unlikely to be forthcoming.


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