Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Education Omnibus

As the War on Teachers heats up, substituting for real hard discussion about exactly what education and schools should be expected to do, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to source a number of essays, past and present, from genuine experts (as opposed to pundits and politicians), and bring them all together. As you will find, Harper's Magazine provides most of the material, which only underlines the essential nature of the publication in American life. And yes, I cite myself twice, with no apologies. What's a blog for, after all?


Why Johnny Can't Think by Walter Karp: "The public schools we have today are what the powerful and the considerable have made of them. They will not be redeemed by trifling reforms. Merit pay, a longer school year, more homework, special schools for "the gifted," and more standardized tests will not even begin to turn our public schools into nurseries of "informed, active and questioning citizens." They are not meant to. When the authors of A Nation at Risk call upon the schools to create an "educated work force," they are merely sanctioning the prevailing corruption, which consists precisely in the reduction of citizens to credulous workers. The education of a free people will not come from federal bureaucrats crying up "excellence" for "economic growth," any more than it came from their predecessors who cried up schooling as a means to "get a better job."

Only ordinary citizens can rescue the schools from their stifling corruption, for nobody else wants ordinary children to become questioning citizens at all. If we wait for the mighty to teach America's youth what secures or endangers their freedom, we will wait until the crack of doom."

Still Separate, Still Unequal by Jonathan Kozol: "There is, indeed, a seemingly agreed-upon convention in much of the media today not even to use an accurate descriptor like "racial segregation" in a narrative description of a segregated school. Linguistic sweeteners, semantic somersaults, and surrogate vocabularies are repeatedly employed. Schools in which as few as 3 or 4 percent of students may be white or Southeast Asian or of Middle Eastern origin, for instance-and where every other child in the building is black or Hispanic are referred to as "diverse." Visitors to schools like these discover quickly the eviscerated meaning of the word, which is no longer a proper adjective but a euphemism for a plainer word that has apparently become unspeakable."

The Ninth Circle of Education
by Riggsveda: "And while Bush's experiments in education as governor of Texas were part of his "Education President" election platform that gave rise to the current testing craze fueling his NCLB program, it's worth recalling that the result of the Texas experiment was a tapestry of lies and hokum that relied on cooked data whose underlying fabrications were all too readily overlooked by an administration eager to crow about its success. And it's also worth recalling that the majority of these wasted efforts were aimed at poor and minority schools, whose students remain about as badly off as they were when compassionate George stalked the Austin mansion."

Schoolhouse Crock by Peter Schrag: "Americans are far too hung up on the notion that in some past golden age the schools were better; When was there ever such an age? The people who blame the schools for today's ills are themselves products of schools that were under attack for similar failings a couple of generations ago. Are the schools good enough? Of course not. But then, they never were. And as long as we expect schools to solve every cultural and economic challenge the United States faces in an ever-evolving world, as long as we continue to tinker with them as if they were training facilities for warriors in cold wars still to come, they never will be. Perhaps it is time we thought of schools as places where our children might simply learn something--not just for our benefit, not just for the nation's, but for their own."

Against School by John Taylor Gatto: "Men like George Peabody, who funded the cause of mandatory schooling throughout the South, surely understood that the Prussian system was useful in creating not only a harmless electorate and a servile labor force but also a virtual herd of mindless consumers. In time a great number of industrial titans came to recognize the enormous profits to be had by cultivating and tending just such a herd via public education, among them Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller."

The Creation of a Gamma Class Redux by Riggsveda: "Eliminate meaningful education, eliminate the means to get one, and remove the books and other human communications that could enable one to get an education on one's own. Demonize the mere idea of being educated, and the people themselves will do the rest. The fat cats can sit back and let the money roll in, while the endless supply of coolies keep coming down the pipeline."

From The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch: "And so it happened that the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations came to exercise vast influence over American education. These foundations set the policy agenda not only for school districts, but also for states and even the U.S. Department of Education. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.

The foundations justify their assertive agenda by pointing to the persistently low performance of public schools in urban districts. Having seen so little progress over recent years, they now seem determined to privatize public education to the greatest extent possible. They are allocating millions of dollars to increase the number of charter schools. They assume that if children are attending privately managed schools, and if teachers and principals are recruited from nontraditional backgrounds, then student achievement will improve dramatically. They base this conclusion on the success of a handful of high-visibility charter schools (including KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools) that in 2009 accounted for about 300 of the nation’s approximately 4,600 charter schools.

If we continue on the present course, with big foundations and the federal government investing heavily in opening more charter schools, the result is predictable. Charter schools in urban centers will enroll the motivated children of the poor, while the regular public schools will become schools of last resort for those who never applied or were rejected. The regular public schools will enroll a disproportionate share of students with learning disabilities and students who are classified as English-language learners; they will enroll the kids from the most troubled home circumstances, the ones with the worst attendance records and the lowest grades and test scores."

Here's an insider's view into some of the worst schools in the country:
"One of the big issues, the teachers say, is dealing with the administration.

“I think I met [my principal], like, twice last year,” says Amanda, who teaches 11th-grade English at a large, high-poverty West Philly high school that’s also regularly on the district’s Persistently Dangerous Schools list.*

Danza met with Northeast Principal Linda Carroll for a few one-on-one chats in his first week alone.

“If this doesn’t work … you’re out,” Carroll says. “With that said, I want to welcome you, and let you know that we’ll give you everything you need to get the job done.”

That’s probably not entirely true considering many district teachers pay for school supplies themselves, a fact not mentioned in the first episode. Amanda rattles off a list of things she supplied herself last year: “A projector, paper, pencils for the kids to write with, notebooks, books, access to computers—I purchased two netbooks last year, one of them got stolen.”

Beth, who teaches 10th-grade English at the same school as Amanda, and Cassidy want disciplinary support. “There are no school-wide consequences for a kid showing up to my class 10 minutes late every single day and not doing a damn thing—there’s nowhere to send her during school time,” Beth says.

For nonviolent offenses, at many underprivileged schools it often falls on the teacher to hold detention and call parents. Cassidy adds that almost anything, short of violence, could happen to her without punishment from above. “They can curse you out, they can call you a bitch, they can walk out, then the other kids start to see that there’s no consequences.”

Which the teachers say is another big problem: the rampant institutionalized indifference—an earbuds-in atmosphere of openly not giving a shit...

The teachers agree that a lot of their students swear constantly—the words pussy, bitch, fuck and faggot are “like prepositions,” Amanda says—but you won’t get proof of that in the show.

And the screening process is even more obvious when the teachers point to a consipcuous lack of pregnancy at Northeast. The three nonmagnet teachers estimate that one out of five girls in their schools is pregnant or has a child, and statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Health back them up.

Even Danza’s workload vastly differed; he taught only one double-length class of 26 students, when most teachers have five periods and about 150 different students."

Charter schools, on the other hand, can pick and choose their students (even those chosen by lottery can be rejected for cause), and do not have to retain difficult students. Yet they, too, are turning out to be less than the perfect alternative once thought. Studies indicate that they generally fail to make much appreciable difference in the ability of students to perform, even though the kids self-select via their own and their parents' preferences for learning. And now some of the consequences of building an education system along a free-market-corporate-model line are coming into focus:
"Wealthy investors and major banks have been making windfall profits by using a little-known federal tax break to finance new charter-school construction.

The program, the New Markets Tax Credit, is so lucrative that a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years...But many of those same schools are now straining to pay escalating rents, which are going toward the debt service that Brighter Choice incurred during construction...Meanwhile, all the Albany charter schools haven't achieved the enrollment levels their founders expected, even after recruiting hundreds of students from suburban school districts to fill their seats.

The result has been less money in per-pupil state aid to pay operating costs, including those big rent bills. Several charters have fallen into additional debt to the Brighter Choice Foundation."
For this we see our public school resources diverted.

No wonder we stopped believing in science.