AT last week's teachers' meeting my Poor Wife's principal blurted out to a roomful of underlings something about massive changes in store for…her school? the entire system? for next year. The extent of the supposed change was unclear, because the blurt was based on rumor, which said principal either a) got second hand; b) had no details to back up; or c) was being coy about sharing, though not so much she avoided causing massive anxiety. At any rate, we're reminded, first, that anyone who imagines the solution to What Ails Our Failing Schools is to turn principals into CEOs and Entrepreneurs should go work for one for six weeks. Or at a dry cleaner's. Or in the PR department at BP.
So my Poor Wife has no idea whether the rumor is true, but it is officially now a rumor. And this led us to a discussion of all the Ground Breaking Innovations, (average life expectancy: four semesters; average time between implementation and system-wide disgust with worthless hoop-jumping: two-point-five; average time between implementation and the people who dreamed it up getting bored and looking around for some new bright shiny object: three weeks) which she's endured during her career. In recent years there's been School CHOICE, which proposed to use the Indianapolis Public Schools transportation system as a taxi service for the lucky 5% who won the Pick Your School Lottery; changing two-year junior high schools into three-year Middle Schools; turning three-year Middle Schools back into two-year junior high schools; the massively-touted School Uniform, Stand Up Straight, and Wipe That Smirk Off Your Face Initiative, based on the frankly unfathomable assumption that the sort of white suburbanite who spouts off about saggy Negro trousers in the comments section of the Racist Beacon does so out of an altruistic concern for genuine education reform.
There was the Small Schools Initiative, a subsidiary of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for Bringing the Sort of Cutting-Edge Innovation Which, Coupled with Cutthroat Restraint of Trade Practices and Copyright Infringement, Made Microsoft What It Is Today to Other Areas of American Life, Tax Free. That one poured millions of gilt-edged Guilt Bucks into--I'm not exaggerating--the Education department at IUPUI, which oversaw the program locally, doling out dollars to IPS administrators for education junkets. The thing never put a single dime into Indianapolis classrooms, but for some reason we were the only major school system to jump in with both feet before testing the depth of the murk below. Meanwhile, students enjoyed all the benefits of Small Learning Communities: teachers who were utterly distracted for the final two months of the previous semester, then the entire following semester, and had spent most of the summer rewriting curriculum so it could be squeezed into the new molds, and mass chaos replacing unseemly localized confusion. The thing lasted two years, after which it was given the sort of burial usually reserved for that goldfish you won at the church fête.
Then, on the grounds that you don't just abandon that Red-headed Stepchild at a highway rest stop without adopting an even bigger and better one on the way home--to prove how committed you are to Innovation!--Indianapolis Public Schools went Magnet happy, at roughly the same time the City of Indianapolis--whose public schools, as any sensible person would imagine, are controlled by the elected members of the Indianapolis Public School Board, as well as those of the other ten independent districts within the city limits which owe their continued existence to the politics of White Flight--gave the Mayor the power to create Charter Schools like God makes mushrooms. (And you'll probably never guess which of the eleven districts serves as a manure field for 95% of the two-dozen-and-counting Charters.) And all this is before we count Test Mania (followed, in Indiana, by Let's Move the Test to the Other End of the School Year! Mania), the successive Clinton and Bush Federal 2¢ Programs, or the Mitch Daniels What We Need To Do Is Lower Standards For Teacher Education Hornswoggle.
Everything I know about NYC schools I learned from not watching The Blackboard Jungle, Fame, the movie, Fame, the teevee spectacle, and missing the recent Indianapolis visit of Bloomberg's designated union buster Joel Klein (in support of that same notion of letting people who can't find employment in their chosen fields go ahead an' give teaching a shot, without the outdated and unreasonable requirements professional training imposes). I have no idea whether Klein has indeed overseen a highly-successful string of Promise Neighborhood charter schools in Harlem and the Bronx, based on the Knowledge Is Power Program, or whether they should received continued Federal Funding.
What I do have is an acute, and probably congenital, allergic reaction whenever I'm bombarded by positive adjectives. I break out in skepticism.
It is no coincidence that charter schools in and near the Harlem Children’s Zone have earned such impressive results. Over the last few years, thanks in part to intensive recruiting by the New York City schools chancellor, Joel Klein, Harlem and the Bronx have become a mecca for a highly successful class of charter schools, all run, to some degree, on the model of the nationwide, nonprofit Knowledge is Power Program: extended hours, energetic young teachers, an emphasis on discipline and character-building, as well as heavy doses of reading and math.
'Cause, see, the thing is I'd like to be convinced, first of all, that low math scores are the real problem in the nation's high-poverty schools, instead of, well, poverty. I'd like to know what Algebra has to do with it. I'd like to know why in every other area of modern American political life the War on Poverty entails aiming at people who're afflicted.
I'd like to know whether, when his house in invaded by bedbugs, and his toilets back up, Joel Klein calls an experienced exterminator or some recent grad with a biology minor, a master plumber or his neighbor, the plunger enthusiast.
I'd like to know why these Highly Successful Impressively Energetic Innovations require public monies go to private concerns, and why those concerns must be staffed with dewy-eyed young idealists who have no idea that, if they stick with the profession, they'll be tossed for the next generation of over-enthusiers right about the time they start figuring out the whole thing's a Merry-go-round of Big Ideas.
Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, premised his organization on the idea that schools like KIPP’s, though needed, are not enough on their own. To solve the problem of academic underperformance by low-income children, he argues, we must surround great schools with an effective system of additional services for poor families.
I'd like to know why these resources should be made available to Gung-Ho Academy, but PS 123 is supposed to make do with less.
I'd like to know who thinks like this, who leaves out all contrary evidence, and who gets swayed by them without suspecting their motives.
Hey, I believe in Knowledge for its own sake. I believe in making a variety of educational opportunities available to every child in America, beginning with the most needy. I don't believe in turning schools into prisons, or training schools for Wal*Mart cashiers or McDonald's prep cooks or aerospace engineers, not before the child has received a good general survey of human knowledge, including art, music, and languages. I don't believe state legislatures are the best places to find people qualified to make those decisions, but, then, I'm from Indiana.
And I read the literature, so I know that, in 2010, anyone claiming the sort of miraculous results for Charter schools which were being predicted a decade ago is a bigger liar than the prognosticators were. Not that there aren't success stories. There are. Maybe those KIPP schools are among 'em. But the results aren't general, and they aren't Charter-specific, and--as has been clear all along, and denied by Charter proponents all along--customizing a program for one student while ten go without is not an improvement, unless you happen to be the one.
In other words, call me when you've distilled these innovations into something that works outside a test market; call me when you can point to teaching innovation, not plump it up with adjectives. Call me when you've got a real product to go with that snazzy label. As un-American a concept as that may be.