The McEducation of the Negro
Franchising is an outstanding model for selling Big Macs. But it can be toxic to classrooms.
The looming deadline is making people do crazy things: Like administrators pushing out low-performing students in North Carolina. Like teachers helping students cheat in Atlanta. Like officials producing math so fuzzy, it would make Wall Street CEOs blush. And, in the case of the Oprah-certified former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, like importing shoddy private managers to take over a school.
Under this framework, "failing" schools are by definition the ones serving the most vulnerable populations -- recent immigrants learning English, families battling poverty, children with trifling or MIA parents. The reformers say that even these students would produce better test scores if only they weren't sitting in front of "lazy" teachers collecting checks, a slight upgrade from Ronald Reagan's welfare queens.
Under this movement, teachers don't get better with practice. Instead they are installed and reinstalled like interchangeable parts. Teachers' unions, originally organized to protect the mostly female work force from capricious regulations of their marriages and lifestyles by mostly male administrators, are depicted as the enemies of progress. (Police unions somehow escaped blame for rising murder rates.)
I'm less concerned about the teachers and administrators than I am the children stuck in those classrooms. What it means to learn has been transformed for a generation of urban children. Education is acquiring a basic body of knowledge needed to competently vote and play Jeopardy, appreciate music and art, go to college and get a job, communicate and so on.
But in the name of reform, it's as if somehow the goalpost has been moved without our realizing it. Now education -- for those "failing" urban kids, anyway -- is about learning the rules and following directions. Not critical thinking. Not creativity. It's about how to correctly eliminate three out of four bubbles. The whole messy, thrilling, challenging work of shaping young minds has been reduced to a one or a zero. Pass or fail.
A decade of this language has taken its own toll. Kids attend "failing" schools. A majority of black boys are "failures." Whole communities are branded with a collective "F." Conservative California politicians liken Compton parents who demand the heads of school staff to modern-day versions of Rosa Parks.
So in cities such as New York, they bring in the number crunchers instead of real education experts -- even if these privatization experiments can go horribly, tragically wrong. And even if choosing a charter school often means choosing to racially segregate.
Public schools that enjoy certain socioeconomic privileges (and a minimal number of needy kids) are thriving and will continue to be left alone. But for the "failing" communities and students, there will be no public system. Instead they are required to navigate the education marketplace, choosing between neighborhood schools that have been creamed of their best students and the new experimental start-ups that on average perform worse than traditional public schools. "This strategy plays a shell game with low-performing students, moving them out and dispersing them, pretending they don't exist," Ravitch wrote.
We have collectively decided that we are incapable as a society of honoring the social contract to own buildings and pay teachers in disadvantaged communities. How can a whole demographic of children need to be "fixed"? How can all of them be wrong?
As for his black son, Bridgers believed that there was something wrong with the medicine. "The teacher was too young," he says. "He couldn't handle the pressure." A week after Bridgers visited the school, his son told him that the young teacher had left and never come back. So Bridgers sent his son to live with his mother in Pennsylvania. "I coach football Little League," he told me. "This is what we talk about on the sidelines. It's terrible what they are doing to these schools."
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.