Sunday, April 27, 2014

Problems: Urban Schools/Urban School Reform Edition

We've got problems.

This morning brings news that yet another friend (a parent and a teacher) is fleeing city schools, in this case the whole family is leaving the US.

Demographically, maybe this is just a blip in the big data story of post-WWII white flight.  But though the flight may be the same, I'd like to think that we are different from our forefathers.  Although many of the people I know in this situation are white, class and educational background, rather than race seem to be the key factor.  When our grandparents fled to the suburbs, they (well everyone except my grandparents) were on a economic upswing.  Our generation is made up of non-profit workers, educators, freelancers, artists, lower level professionals.  We are the struggling middle class, worried about our benefits, not saving enough for retirement, chastising ourselves for buying that fancy cheese at Whole Foods.  What we are not-people who can afford private school tuition.  And we are also people who believe in a shared public good, people who went to public schools and believe in public education.

And increasingly, from what I'm hearing and what I'm experiencing, I believe that families like mine have not only been abandoned by public school systems, we are being actively rejected.  There is so much going on in public education that it's easy to get distracted.  For me the debate over Common Core is just a distraction.  I know a bit more about CC than your average non-educator parent, having built a teacher training class that was aligned to CC standards.  The standards themselves were good, more in line with the way I expected students to think when I was an instructor at elite colleges than what was expected of me as a public school student.  In the hands of a talented teacher, given time to learn how to teach to these new standards and resources to execute those lessons, CC could encourage teachers to do really interesting work with students.  The downside, CC has too many standards and is overly detailed and fussy.  As an educator, I tried to keep my objectives clear and simple for each lesson and focus on one key theme and topic and one key skill.  Trying to do too much (being pushed to develop lesson plan that show you are doing too much) confuses and frustrates students.  It also takes time for teachers to learn to teach in a new way and for students to learn to learn in a new way.  I taught some of the best prepared college students in the country, and trying to teach them to do a thorough textual analysis was arduous for all parties.

The bigger problem with CC is that it is expected to be a silver bullet for our education woes without any resources to address the structural inequality that, I would say, is the major underlying factor in low educational achievement.  I worked in a series of Chicago public schools as a tutor, schools that ranged from functional racially and economically diverse schools to dysfunctional segregated schools.  In the worst school, bathrooms did not have toilet paper, and obviously traumatized children were not only not given any services-they were also re-traumatized by harsh discipline, and there was no recess and no school nurse.  Because there was no school nurse and 1/3 of the children lived in homeless shelters that were closed during the day, very sick and feverish children were laid on makeshift pallets at the back of the classroom to wait for the end of the day when the shelter reopened.  I will never forget seeing an administrator who had been brought in as the enforcer for an out-of-control class scream in the face of a little boy because she thought he was giving her "a hard look" during her lecture.  Actually he was terrified.  I had gleaned that he had seen his father do terrible things to his mother, things for which the father was in jail.  The little boy was physically defensive and hated yelling.  As the administrator got in his face, I could see him completely shut down.  That's our America.

As a college instructor, would I expect a student who had just seen his uncle shot and killed, or a student whose mom had just gone to jail to function?  No, I would say-take the incomplete, get some counseling, come back when you're ready.  Poor, little children don't get that luxury.

After surveying my small sample, I would say decisively that middle-class parents bring resources to schools, and as long as they aren't allowed to segregate their children in gifted academies within the school, those resources benefit all children.  So, you might think that administrators who oversee urban schools would be working to get more middle class families.  B and I want to be those parents, most of our friends want to be those parents, and we don't have to send our child to a perfect school.  If the school is a little run down, if we have to send in supplies, if it's a little more regimented than we would like-we could live with all that.  But no educator can think it's acceptable to scream in a child's face.  There must be toilet paper and recess and a library.  There should be a school nurse.

What I'm hearing from parents, what we felt in LB's IEP experience, is accept or get out.  The system doesn't want middle-class parents with our critiques and standards and demands.  In the public sphere dissatisfied middle class parents are broadly painted as whiny, spoiled racists, which I find infuriating.  From my vantage point, urban school administrators have decided that reform will be easier if they get rid of all the parents like me, so they can conduct their grand experiment without interference-or at least without interference by those who have resources.

Why are middle class parents leaving urban public schools.  It's not because those school serve children of color and poor children, it's a much more personal experience of the failure of schools to respect children and their parents.  Friends have told me stories of preschool-aged children isolated in the classroom each day because they could not meet the developmental expectations of silence and hands-to-self.  And, the parent of a five-year-old in Chicago who brought her child to school after a Dr's appointment and was not allowed to walk her child to the classroom-distubing both from the child's point of view-having to navigate a huge, barely-familiar school building alone and from the parent's point of view-don't we have a right to enter and observe our child's public education on public property?  No attempt was made to address the concerns of these families, certainly no effort was made to keep them in the school.  Instead the clear message was: plenty of people want these spots-either accept or get out.

For committed and talented educators things are just as bad.  I know too many good teachers who are leaving because they don't want to teach from a script, because they don't want spend each year learning whatever new curriculum that the admins think will be the quick fix, because they get no resources to do the work that might actually make children ready to learn.  It's like when I worked at a certain coffee company and corporate told us that it was non-negotiable that we must have at least two workers in the store at all times, but the computer scheduler wouldn't allow (or pay for) more than one person to open and close.  Talented people don't want to be trapped in a low-paying, high-stress, dystopian environment where the standards are impossibly high and the resources incredibly low.

I work for an organization that serves low-income public school students-which in urban Rhode Island means that they are mostly people of color.  They are smart, good young people, I would be happy to send my own child to school with them.  I have dreams of helping LB's teachers develop lesson plans in African American history, of writing grants for her schools.  But seemingly, highly-educated and doting parents like us are just clogging up the machine of urban education reform.

What is my dream school: a public school where all children have access to resources that support their physical (food, health care, recess), emotional (counseling, social skill training), and intellectual (books, art, math, science, social studies) development.  A school were all employees like children and believe that children can succeed.  A school that sees parents, not a customers, but as partners.  A school that believes children are individuals and treats them accordingly.  A school where educators are empowered to solve problems.  A school where administrators, educators, support staff, and students feel respected.  That's all I want.

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