Friday, April 4, 2014

Contemplating the Premise: Providing the Best Education To Urban Youth

I'm just thinking here:

In 1994, with a degree in English Literature, I chose to attend the University of Louisville to earn a Masters in Teaching and to learn as much as I could about urban education. From 1994 to 2007, I worked in urban schools as a graduate student, a naturalist, and an English teacher. I continued my studies for a second masters from the Kentucky Institute of Education and Sustainable Development and earned additional credits through Bread Loaf School of English, University of Cambridge, and the Fulbright Memorial Program in Tokyo. In the classroom, I attended countless hours of professional development, attended local, state, and national conferences, and received Critical Friends Coach training from the Coalition of Essential Schools. Why the education? Because I always believed in the excellence for urban youth and the best practices for instruction to help students achieve great things. This, of course, brought me to a doctorate at Syracuse University and my continued advocacy for young writers, literacy, and professional development through the National Writing Project in urban schools of Connecticut.

This is why I am perplexed by the premise that alternative schools - charter schools - and national programs for teaching such as Teach for America, currently trump years of research, professionalism, and expertise initiated by scholars and practitioners that should be authorities for providing education to young people. If education pays - a motto adopted by many of our states - then why are educational experts and professionals ignored?

I'm still just thinking:

I have visited multiple public schools in my career and I've seen the great, the good, the bad, and the ugly. In more affluent districts I am awed by the resources and professional development provided to teachers. In poorer districts, I've become more and more shocked by the increasing demands placed on teachers, the lack of resources, and the expectation to solve all of society's ills. Lately, I've begun to hear more and more blame placed on the work they do and witnessed top-down management implementing robotic curriculum designed for tests that does not work. My analogy has been: cut off the arms of urban school teachers, paralyze their legs, and tape their mouths shut while demanding they run a marathon in record time carrying the complex needs of students on their backs. The majority of teachers, 90%+, are committed, devoted, passionate, and energized to do their best in circumstances that I find appalling. They are amazing individuals and I am inspired by them every day. Yet, they are trampled by current reform and the test-anxious paradigm that has become rampant in our nation's schools.

This is why I question the premise of charter schools as a solution. I've been thinking about them from the perspectives of young people, parents, taxpayers, and teachers. There's no doubt that many of America's educational flaws arrive from the monster that is poverty. I now wonder if sucking the limited resources of urban districts (and states for that matter) to privilege the few is the best answer. It seems to me they add fuel to the fire to destroy young people in our nation's urban centers.

This is another thought:

Over the weekend, my teaching mentor visited from Louisville, Kentucky, and we spent many hours hiking and participating in walk-n-talks. She has over 40+ years of experience and I value every ounce of her wisdom. We discussed Jefferson County Public Schools - one of the largest urban districts in the nation - and how they have avoided the onslaught of 'reform' movements pushing into the poorest neighborhoods. We hypothesized that because the district unified many zip codes and implemented a busing system (albeit controversial), because the central offices discovered a way to spread the wealth (so to speak) equitably between multiple schools, and because the district was aligned with universities, the State Department of Education, and with supportive, district-wide professional development, there has been no need for out-of-state reform movements (or at least resistance to their economical powerful presence). Granted, JCPS has the highest and lowest performing schools in the State, just like Fairfield County in Connecticut, yet their resources are more equitably distributed. This, it can be speculated, results in more shared resources and a greater organization of goals, materials, and support throughout most schools. The conversation reminded me of Gerald Grant's Hope and Despair in the American City and his comparison of Syracuse, New York, and Raleigh, North Carolina. He, too, referenced JCPS as a model that works because families in more affluent areas grew more comfortable of diversifying student populations in their schools. This results in a strong district core that has resources, countering the exploitation of charter movements. Poorer districts, without the finances, have a difficult time fighting the charter movement. Charters are backed with finances strong enough to launch political careers and to afford impressive television advertisements. In other words, they have funding streams that are greatly needed in the most impoverished districts of the country. They spend money on their cause, rather than the needs of children.

This is why I am thinking:

On Wednesday, Governor Malloy and Commissioner of Education Pryor celebrated the Board of Education's approval of additional charter schools in New Haven, Hartford, Stamford, and Bridgeport - districts known for enrolling students from the state's poorest neighborhoods (this, of course, is in proximity of the nation's wealthiest zip codes). I should point out that zip code apartheid is prevalent north of the Long Island Sound. Connecticut is both the land of haves and have nots - the epitome of the growing economic gap in this nation. What interests me, however, is that the Charter movement seems to be backed by the haves (and these are Democrat party haves. When I first began wondering what was going on, I assumed Charters were the moves of the tea-party and/or far right). I am curious about support for them, especially when Connecticut has colleges and universities who train teachers and have the expertise to provide professional development in support of sustainable reform (yet they, are virtually ignored, as well). I'm impressed that national newspapers and social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook) have gone hog-wild reporting this phenomenon and I'm hopeful their reporting will continue (We need investigative reporting to unravel what this is really about).

Which brings me to:

I am thinking this morning about young people attending schools in Connecticut and their parents/ guardians. When I ran last night, I brainstormed questions I would ask of any school that houses learners:
  • What are the credentials of the faculty in the building? What is their expertise? Do they have graduate degrees and work experience? How many teachers in the building have only had five weeks of training? How are highly qualified educators defined?
  • What professional development is provided to the faculty for raising the bar for all students? What professional organizations do faculty members belong to? Does the school have a good relationship with local colleges and universities? Do teachers follow the standards created by national organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Council for Social Studies, the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, or the National Writing Project? In other words, who do the teachers rely on for staying professional in their careers? How well does the school and/or district support  involvement in such organizations? Or does the school virtually ignore expertise? 
  • What is the school's curriculum? Are teachers mandated to use a set curriculum that is strictly designed for tests? How robust are extra-curricular activities? How important are the arts? 
  • How much input does the school expect from parents? Do they have a council for parental and/or student representation to help decide policies for the school? Do teachers have a say about school policies? What does the school do with those who have countering beliefs?
  • How does the school define college and career readiness? Is the emphasis on the ability to take examinations as determined by the Common Core State Standards? Is education defined by the real-world expectations of college and careers beyond the standards? (I ask this, because I consider myself highly educated and I know I got to where I am DESPITE the New York State Regents exams I took as a student. I learned from that experience that there are few correlations with how I scored on tests and my success as an adult. I was good at them because I played the game, but they stood in the way of my learning. In college, I learned that the tests restricted my academic growth rather than enhanced it).
  • Finally, how diverse is the school? What is the school's philosophy for understanding difference? How do the adults in the building work to educate the whole child? Every child? How nurturing are they to the souls of kids?
No school is perfect.

That is why I advocate for options so that young people in a heterogeneous society are not forced into homogeneous instruction alone. Families (and teachers) deserve options. I also believe that competition is a good thing. I wonder, though, if some schools are preparing only SOME of the students to be competitive. One of my criticisms with reform movements of late has been the lack of diverse perspectives in the reform's creation (that's been well documented and I needn't repeat it here). Individuals with strong academic records who attended highly ranked universities and are afforded well-paid salaries might not be the most informed individuals about how to teach young people unlike them. In my more cynical moods, I think about Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Alan Paton's Cry The Beloved Country. I also think about the refugee populations I've worked with and how Western, educated and privileged society created massive rifts in Africa from late 19th century and early 20th century military might and well-intended missionaries. This resulted in the civil wars and genocides of the late 1990s and early 21st century. Behind this history is the misguided notion that a 'conquerer' is more 'civilized' (read educated) than the natives he or she conquers. I can't help but think that public school, urban teachers and students are being positioned by the reform movement as baboons in today's political arena. That is why I have another question:
  • How diverse is the faculty at the school? Whose agenda is promoted? Is this agenda good or bad for the kids in the school? What happens to the child (or family)(or teacher) who has a varying viewpoint? 
I would also ask:
  • What would I want for my child 15 years from now? What would I want for my neighbor's child? What would I want for the child who lives in the harshest circumstance of the United States? 
I might also add:
  • Is this a school that is fair to all children? One to be promoted in every zip code of the United States? One that represents the democracy that has made this nation what it is? How exclusive does the school intend to be and why?
And finally, I'd ask of myself:
  • How committed am I to speak out when I see social injustice occurring right before my eyes?

My last thought:

Perhaps the last question is why I've written this post. We need to get more creative in how we are thinking about our public schools. I do not think Charters are the answer, unless they are pulled in as magnets and held to the same standards, financial structure, and democracy originally intended for public schools in the United States. Rather than taking away from urban districts, Charter movements should be resources that ADD to urban districts. Sadly, this is rarely the case.

We need to do better. This is the civil rights movement of our time.

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