Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Broader Approach

The blog world seems to be obsessed with the report released yesterday by EPI. I've read too many posts on the topic to cite them all. But I notice one recurring theme among a number of them: complaints that the report is tackling a problem that doesn't exist.

Let's take a step back. The report purports to take both a "bolder" and a "broader" approach to education reform than other solutions that have been floated. It argues, in short, that schools alone cannot close the achievement gap and that while improving schools is a worthy goal that it's not enough.

It seems a number of people have essentially asked "who ever said schools could do it alone?"

Maybe it's just because I'm cranky today, but this seems like a preposterous, if not disingenuous, question to me.

There is an overriding assumption behind a lot of the recent legislation and commentary on education that schools alone are expected to cure all social ills. When people argue that is not possible they're told that they're being defeatist and not to make excuses. It would be quite difficult to not to have noticed this*.

Here's the reality of the situation: schools can help, but they can't change everything. I taught for two years in an atrociously run middle school in the Bronx. Every day was filled with much chaos and little learning. And here's what I learned during my two years: the biggest reason for the failure of the school was what was happening at home. Now, that's not to say that we couldn't have done better. I could name a couple incompetent and mean-spirited administrators that should've been replaced. Us teachers certainly could have done better. The school could've been better organized. Any number of things would have helped the situation.

But that doesn't hide the fact that most of the problems existed before students ever set foot in the building. I had some horribly disruptive students my second year. The only thing that seemed to help one's behavior was calling home. But when I did that he would come back with large welts across his arms. When I would call the home of another one, his mother would tell me that she didn't know what to do. Kids would stroll into the building late with an empty stomach and an angry demeanor. When an argument erupted, it was quite difficult to defuse because kids would tell me that they were under instructions from their parents not to "stay hit." Kids would come in and fall asleep b/c they had been kept up till the wee hours of the morning by any number of activities. A couple kids disappeared for a month to go visit family in the Dominican Republic. And on, and on, and on.

Does that mean that it's impossible for a school (or a teacher) to make a difference? No. None of that stopped me from working till I dropped from exhaustion at night, setting my alarm for 5:15, and working until the bell rang in the morning. I usually stayed at school until I was too hungry to work anymore. Sometimes I'd go get dinner and find a janitor to let me back in. I kept threatening to sleep at school, but never followed through. I set high expectations from my students, and made them sign their work certifying that it was their best possible effort. But I didn't change the world. Some of the students did better, sure, but there were too many things at play for me to unalterably change the course of every life I touched.

Every person involved with a local school should focus their effort on helping children rather than making excuses, but that doesn't change the reality that schools are not only asked, but expected to do the near-impossible on a daily basis.

The report is somewhat weak. None of the policy proposals are particularly specific or ground-breaking. But I'm going to "sign" it, and here's why: the tenor of the discussion needs to be changed. I don't expect this report to do all that much, but at least it's a start. A lot of important people have signed on to the general idea that we need to improve the lives of children both inside and outside of school. I agree.

*Wording has been changed from original version to reflect a more civil tone. Thanks to KDeRosa for pointing this out.


Anonymous said...

Well said. From my experiences teaching in a variety of settings, what the students bring to the school in terms of family support, good health, social groups, etc. matters more than what the school itself did.

As a high school teacher who had the kids an average of 45 minutes a day, I had to ask, "How am I supposed to solve the problems that follow my students through the school gates?"

Nancy Flanagan said...

>>>It seems a number of people have essentially asked "who ever said schools could do it alone?"<<<

You do know that a significant segment of the research/opinion world seems to think that silk purses can be made out of sows-ear schools, right? It's what lies under "the soft bigotry of low expectations" and other rhetorical flourishes, and there's always someone around saying, hey, if KIPP schools can do it, everyone can do it.

All of your points are well-taken here, Corey. It's a huge, systemic problem that we're tackling, and schools --even the best schools--are limited. If you take the "schools can fix everything" argument to its logical end, you end up with something like Tom Friedman bemoaning the fact that only a handful of kids from disaster-zone neighborhoods can be accepted at SEED charter boarding school. A grim prospect, especially when you compare the achievement levels of countries with a much smaller wealth gap. We have to fix neighborhoods, too, in the end, and we can't fix them without decent jobs and economic policy changes.

If I were a cynic, or a critical theorist, I might suggest that some people really don't want to fix either schools or neighborhoods, and defend the idea that stuff like "raising standards" will keep poor people well-educated enough to fill low-level jobs.

But I'm not cynical, which is why I think the report has some real strengths. Perhaps what you see as weakness is simply that fact that the report seems to have been written for a general audience (and many policy-makers are, face it, "general"). Even the way the research is organized and annotated seems to be suggesting that the authors were not looking to impress the scholars, but were perhaps trying to get out ahead of new education policy creation that will inevitably happen in 2009, no matter who's in the White House.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

My problem with the report is that it's pretty general. I think it's that way b/c it was a large group that signed it, and getting too specific could prevent unanimity.