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.
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.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.