Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Response to "Why the Bloomberg/Klein Educational Reforms Will Not Work" (cont'd)

On Sunday, Sept. 28, I published an article by Professor Alan Singer, of Hofstra University. I started to respond to his ideas on Mon., Sept. 29, and I will continue today. I don't completely disagree with Professor Singer, nor do I completely agree with him. I would love to know what others think!

Singer writes:
The heart of the Bloomberg/Klein plan is a business organization model that is autocratic and has little relevance for the education of people. It has not worked for the delivery of electricity, health care or gasoline, and it will not work for schools.

It treats education as a commodity to be produced efficiently and delivered for the lowest possible price. In this model, children are raw material to be manipulated and if resistant, discarded. Teachers become little more than cogs in a machine, part of a delivery process. Parents are seen as consumers who should be instructed on how to purchase the best pair of jeans, sneakers, or schools- assuming such schools are actually available to them. School-based administrations become middle managers instead of educational leaders. Their job is the unquestioning enforcement of arbitrary directives. If you want to see how this model works in practice, look at the beginning o f Charlie Chaplin's classic movie, Modern Times. In factory-like schools run on a business model, no one gets treated like a human being.

Probably true, but again, not new under these reforms. As I understand the history of American education, universal schooling started as a response to pressure from unions to end child labor, and as a way of getting thousands of immigrant children off the streets and Americanized. This happened back around the end of the 19th century. Over the next few decades, the push for efficiency and standardization led to the creation of huge, factory-like schools, the 45 minute period system, the Carnegie Unit, bells marking the beginning and end of classes, etc. Now, I'm not defending these huge, factory-like schools: having taught in one, I think they are dehumanizing for both teacher and student. Nevertheless, I don't think it's fair to blame their existence on the Bloomberg/Klein reforms! While many small, humanistic schools exist in the city, I have yet to hear of a good alternative to the "factory model" that could be implemented for the millions of schoolchildren in New York City. I'm not saying there is no alternative; I just haven't heard of one yet. Whatever it is has to be both individualized and flexible, and scalable. This seems to put any city-level reformer in a Catch-22.

Singer continues...
The better educated and more savvy parents will never accept this kind of education for their children. Would Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein or Caroline Kennedy? To keep these families in the public school system, their children will attend specialized academic schools or new "designer" programs in the experimental, and well-funded, mini-schools. To maintain an air of equity, high achieving minority youngsters, or those with the most pushy parents, will also be channeled into these programs. While they are being presented as models for the future, they are little more than oases in an educational desert. Most youngsters will remain in overcrowded, under-funded, mediocre remediation centers.

Yes, the movement to break up some of the factory-style schools into smaller schools and programs-within-schools will probably "skim" many of the more advantaged students out of the regular school system: that's true of the school where I teach, in fact. Our students had to apply to our school; we selected them on the basis of report cards, test scores, teacher recommendations, and interviews. These kids are more likely to have parents who desperately want something better for their children and are willing to work hard to get it. Their children would have been in top classes in the large public junior high schools, and top classes get so many extra privileges and enrichment activities that they might as well be their own programs. Many of them would have sought out private or parochial school scholarships if we did not exist. Nevertheless, the schools that lose these kids are (understandably) bitter. We got start-up money for furniture and such, plus a regular budget figured on the basis of the number of children attending our school - we are only slightly better-funded than the average school, if at all. There's a lot to be said for allowing teachers to decide how money could best be spent... we probably seem better-funded, but really we just spend the money carefully.

That said, I still have not seen an alternative proposal. It is easy to say something won't work, but what WOULD work? Since we agree that the huge schools are not the answer, why not break up as many of them as possible? Each kid who gets the opportunity to attend a small, high-quality school is another child whose life is better for it. A movement towards more small schools seems reasonable to me, especially if careful attention is paid to those kids who are left behind in the large schools.

Singer continues...
Genuine school reform means recognizing that there are no quick fixes for the schools and that it will take money and probably greater attention to social inequality in American society. Numerous studies have shown that the surest way to improve the educational performance of students is to raise the socio-economic status of families. In the meantime, some proposals make more sense than others.

I absolutely agree that the best way to improve school performance is to deal with poverty. That would also improve a host of other social problems, by the way! When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate really discuss poverty in a debate??? I think this topic deserves a post of its own, sometime in the future.

Singer goes on to say...
Our schools must treat children, teachers and parents as human beings. They must acknowledge and respect individual differences, not try to pound square pegs into round holes. This means focusing on teaching children, not learning packages. It means convincing students of the value of learning, not forcing them to complete what appear to them as meaningless tasks. This approach to reform means involving teachers in planning and decision-making, not just giving them directives to implement. It means treating parents as partners in the education of children, not obstacles and the subject of blame. It means providing parents with support through parenting and literacy classes and instruction on how to help children learn, instead of using them to deliver corporal punishment when teachers cannot engage their children.

Very true, but what should the city-level reformer do to ensure that these things happen? Few of the ideas in this paragraph are policies, exactly. If anything, creating smaller schools whenever possible could allow teachers to network as teams. Teachers need fewer students and more common planning time to create really good small schools - yes, that will take money. The new parent advocates could be called upon to arrange parenting, literacy, and computer classes, if funding is provided.

We already know what can work. The best private and suburban public schools augment student achievement through enrichment programs and by building teams of teachers, administrators, counselors, support personnel, and parents that coordinate instruction and address the needs of individuals. Even in the most troubled inner-city schools, informal teams of teachers have always figured out ways of working together to improve education for their students.

Creating smaller schools offers teachers, parents, and other school people more opportunities to do these things, particularly if they are also given the time, money, and professional development to do them right.

The Bloomberg/Klein reform plan cannot work because it ignores the reality of the life of young people and their families, what we know about how adults work and children learn, and broader social inequality. It is a prescription for disaster.

I honestly don't think the Bloomberg/Klein plan will make things worse, and I think it stands a chance of improving things. I agree with Professor Singer that it will most likely not "fix" education in NYC all by itself. My next post on this topic will explain why I am hopeful, and explore some of the alternatives that might be available.


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