The McEducation of the Negro

Franchising is an outstanding model for selling Big Macs. But it can be toxic to classrooms.

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Something wasn't right at the high school that Darwin Bridgers' son attends, so he sat in on the class to see for himself. All morning long, the instructor at the Washington, D.C., charter school pointed to a list of ground rules, a detailed list of rewards and punishments posted on a wall near the front of the class filled with black and Latino students.

Then the students filled out worksheets. That's how it went: rewards and punishments, then worksheets. No instruction, just worksheets. At the end of the class, Bridgers, who works as an exterminator, pulled aside the teacher, a young white male and recent graduate.

"I wanted to know when he was going to do some, you know, teaching," Bridgers explained to me recently. "You know, like, how we used to have in school? She would stand in front of the class … "

I nodded my head. I attended K-12 at schools in Canada, Indiana and Florida in the '80s and '90s, but I knew exactly what he meant. There would be assignments to read from textbooks. A teacher would give a lecture and randomly call on students. Students would ask questions and write things down. Then there would be some sort of written exam to see what you'd learned.

Of course, today the "reformers" say that that way of teaching is old school. It was fine before the days of social media and the "information revolution" and the global economy. But now, as the argument goes in films like Waiting for Superman, no self-respecting parent would ever send his or her child to a "failing" public school like the one that generations of Bridgers' family attended in their neighborhood in Northeast Washington.

For Bridgers' son and a disproportionate number of black students around the country, charter schools have become the preferred choice. The idea is that charters can find a model that produces results -- measured in test scores -- then apply it to different campuses. They can raise and spend money independently. They can have management consultants, and they can compete -- just like a business. As the charter school movement picks up steam nationwide, the District of Columbia may provide a glimpse of the future of "choice": Roughly 40 percent of children enrolled in District of Columbia public schools attend charters.

Many D.C. parents are finding that, sure, there are plenty of choices -- just not a lot of good, or even passable ones. When you mix corporate strategies with an ominous 2014 compliance deadline under the No Child Left Behind law, you often end up with scenes that look nothing like what most of us might recognize as a classroom.

"What once was an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy," the acclaimed education historian Diane Ravitch writes in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. "The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators. It often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education. It produced mountains of data, not educated citizens. Its advocates then treated that data as evidence of its success."

That strategy has grown even more intense as teachers and administrators are testing for their professional lives. Under NCLB, 100 percent of schools must reach certain test-score targets by 2014; schools that fall short could lose federal funding, or be closed.

Even if the law is repealed, which is something the Obama administration has signaled it will do, education has been changed in this country forever. Obama's Race to the Top program continues to use the same sticks and carrots that require educators to teach to the test or else be fired or make less money.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM