All throughout the nation, School Reformers are following a similar script. They have identified schools in high poverty areas as "failed institutions," with the main cause of their failure being incompetent teachers and union rules which protect them from dismissal. Their solution, close the schools, fire the teachers and replace them with charter schools which can hire and fire teachers at will.
If you use test scores as an indicator, there is no doubt that many schools in poor neighborhoods seem to perform poorly. But is closing those schools, firiing their teachers, and replacing them with charter schools; all the while subjecting teachers to performance reviews based on student test scores, the appropriate response?
It is- but only if you ignore history and mis diagnose the cause of the "failure."
Let us take a close look at the history of two places- the Bronx and the City of Buffalo- which have a disproportionate number of failing schools. Both have extremely high poverty rates, and many of the associated ills that come with poverty, such as high rates of unemployent, housing overcrowding, and mental illness.
But as sociologist Orlando Patterson has reminded us when examining African American history, history cannot be reduced to mere numbers. When people have been subjected to traumatic experiences, it has an impact on their lives far beyond the moment those traumas occurred. And the residents of Buffalo and the Bronx, and the institutions which serve them, bear the scars of three major social upheavals which have affected their families and communities- deindusrialization, the crack epidemic, and the war against drugs.
Deindustrialization- the closing of factories and the departure of factory jobs- shattered the social fabric of the Bronx in the 1960's and 1970's and of Buffalo in the 1970's and 1980's, leaving in its wake abandoned factories and warehouses, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of decent paying jobs
which allowed working class families to own their own homes or rent sizable apartments. When the jobs left, families shattered and the housing stock was decimated. By the time the process was completed, and most of the good jobs were gone, many neighborhoods in the Bronx and Buffalo looked as though they had suffered aerial bombardment. Worse yet, the residents of these neighborhoods, like those who survived warfare, suffered from what Medical Researcher Mindy Thompson Fullilove has called "Root Shock" a form of PTSD that affects people who have watched the communities they live in destroy by market forces.
Then, in the final stages of de-industrialization, both Buffalo and the Bronx were hit by drug epidemics spawed by the arrival of a form of an extremely cheap and highly addictive derivative of cocaine called "crack"-- which provided unheard of income opportunities to neighborhood youth while stirring equally unprecedented levels of violence and addiction in the neighborhoods where they lived. Shootouts and drive-bys became commonplace occurances in communities where legal work was scare, and few businesses remained, creating a feeling that no one was safe in public space. Along with this, many mothers, often the sole support of families, became addicted, forcing grandparents to step in to raise children, or pushing them into foster care. People living through this experience again were traumatized by it- as anyone who lives amidst flying bullets would be. And the remaining institutions, especially the public schools, had the burden of caring for the victims, while the teachers and administrators sometimes became victims themselves.
Finally, in the latter stages of the crack epidemic, and even after it has diminished, came the Drug War, a strategy of deluging poor communities with police and arresting drug sellers en masse whether they were engaged in acts of violence or not, whether the drugs they sold were damaging or no more harmful than alcohol. Although this strategy of militarized, zero tolerance policing reduced neighborhood violence, at least in the short run, it led to the mass incarceration of neighborhood youth and the creation of an environment where all neighborhood young people found themselves under suspicion of criminal activity. Traumatic encounters with police became a common place occurance for youth, mostly through humiliating searches, but occasionally resulting in shootings when police officers panicked
This sequence of traumas, occurring over a period of 30-40 years, left deep emotional scars on the people who experienced them. Among the casualties were trust, self-confidence, hope for the future, all characteristics which you want children to have when they come to school. Schools in such communities were not only dealing with poor people, they were dealing with traumatized, deeply wounded people, whose experiences inevitably entered the classroom.
When people have been traumatized this way, what they need most is an opportunity to heal. They need stability, they need caring, they needed the opportunity to rebuild trust
But what School Reformers decided to give turned out to be a new Trauma- closing the one institution that had survived through all the upheavals, removing the teachers who had remained there, and staring afresh with a new insitution and new teachers who knew nothing of what the neighborhood and its people had gone through.
Is is any wonder that this approach is failing. That it is not improving school performance. Not stabilizing neighborhoods, not rebuilding them, but instead making them ripe for gentrification.
What was really needed was never really done- transforming schools into true community insitutions, open 24 hours a day and serving the entire neighborhood as a place of healing for all residents. Will we ever wake up and try to do that? Or will we just keep piling Trauma upon Trauma upon those who have lived an American Nightmare more than an American Dream