One of the cornerstones of the Obama Administrations “Race to the Top”program is its “school turnaround” initiative. In order to qualify for Race to the Top funds, a state must agree to shut down “failing” schools, as determined by test scores or, in the case of high schools, graduation rates, replace at least half of their teaching staffs, and put a new school in its place, either a reconfigured public schools with new leadership, or a charter school.
As a longtime community organizer and coach, and someone who has spend the last eight years doing community history projects in Bronx schools, I am astonished and appalled by this policy. If low income communities, battered by factory closings, job losses, drug epidemics and over aggressive policing are going to create an environment conducive to educational achievement for the majority of its young people, schools are going to have to play a role in educating the entire neighborhood and helping relieve its economic distress. Instead of closing down failing schools on the basis of test scores and graduation rates, those schools should be given additional resources to run after school and night programs for both students and neighborhood residents, and hire parents along with teachers to help staff them. Such a policy would make everyone in the community look to the school as a beacon of hope and transformation, would make teacher/student/parent relationships less adversarial, and would give parents additional resources that would allow them to stay in their homes and apartments and avoid three outcomes which absolutely cripple educational engagement and performance- homelessness, taking in boarders, and constant moving from apartment to apartment. Any teacher or coach who works in a working class or poor neighborhood knows what I am talking about. Unfortunately, education reformers with a “no excuses” philosophy write off student living conditions, or family income, as irrelevant to educational achievement or as something that can be overcome with superhuman effort by teachers who are presented with financial incentives if they succeed, and termination if they fail
Now lets look at the school turnaround model. Here the only variable that matters is teaching and administration. Schools are given no extra resources to make the community welcome in the school, or give extra income to the neighborhood’s struggling families. Teachers and principals are simply presented with an ultimatum- improve test scores and graduation rates or you are fired!
As someone who has spent the last 45 years teaching, and who spent more than 15 years coaching and running youth programs in North Brooklyn, I will tell you flat out that trying to improve academic performance, or any other performance, on the part of young people in poverty and on the edge of homelessness without making additional resources available to them and their families, building on the cultural capital of the community they live in, and giving them love, mentoring and respect, is impossible. No amount of homework and stress filled drilling for tests will accomplish that. The inevitable result of that will either be cheating by school officials or subtle, and not so subtle pressures to push young people in the most difficult circumstances out of the school.
I am not pessimistic about young people in difficult circumstances achieving great things. In the youth organization I worked in the 78th Precinct youth council, a small group of coaches and referees had great success taking young people who were in deep trouble in school, who had difficulties with the law, and who had families that had drug and alcohol problems and getting them through middle school, high schools and into college. But what did it take? We gave them money for food and clothing. We paid for tutors to help them in subjects where they were weak. We got them jobs, and sometimes helped get jobs for their parents. When they were kicked out of their homes, we let them stay with us. We sent them to high schools where we knew there were coaches who looked out for them. We organized reading groups for them featuring books that talked about issues in their families and neighborhood. We exposed them to music we grew up with and let them expose us to the hip hop music which was the sound track of their lives, And when all else failed, we were available to them 24/7, no questions, whether they called us on the phone, or knocked on our door.
Using those methods, we didn’t lose a single child. But if we did anything less, we might have lost all of them!
No lets go back to the schools. There is no way, I repeat, no way, that destabilizing schools environments, and playing musical chairs with teachers and principals, is good for young people such as the ones I had the privilege of working with. They need teacher/ mentors who will be there for their entire lives, not ones who will try to teach them measurable skills for two and three years and then leave. They also need the school to provide them with additional resources that will help stave off the most damaging dimensions of poverty, and to incorporate the cultural traditions of their neighborhoods into the school mission and culture.
But that means reconfiguring schools a institutions that serve neighborhoods and families, not as way stations for the lucky and ambitious that will enable them to leave behind the hardships that surround them
The “school turnaround path” we are on now is tragically flawed It will leave the neighborhoods such schools are located in worse shape than they were before, and undermine long term chances of reducing class and race inequities in education and economic status.
But if you don’t believe me, why don’t you do something revolutionary and actually ask young people what THEY want a school to provide. And then develop a school transformation policy that incorporates those suggestions. I would be very surprised if they didn’t want some of the things from their schools, that we, in the 78th Precinct Youth Council, offered some of our players, along with some great ideas that we never thought of.
March 13, 2012