Monday, August 3, 2009

The Big Nut to Crack

Dear Ms. Mitchell,

I am writing to you from Oakland, California where I am longtime public school parent and public school activist. I have a deep interest in urban public school issues and read a great deal about them. Today I discovered your recent piece about Arne Duncan on an education blog called “This Week in Education.”

I want to let you know that I am grateful for your article and for posting the video of your interview with Mr. Duncan. I am particularly appreciative that you asked him why his focus is on test score data rather than on quality of life issues at schools, such as improving school climate, focusing on children's social and emotional issues, and developing ways to counter early expressions of urban violence. From my point of view, his response clearly demonstrated a simple lack of understanding.

I firmly believe that today’s education reformers are missing the mark because they are not addressing these things first. And I also believe that perhaps the reason for this is because they have never personally experienced the schools attended by children of the underclass, nor are they much willing to tap into the substantial body of knowledge of people who have. Too many of them have attended private schools and Ivy League colleges, and are only willing to send their children to the same. They're in charge of education for the masses, but are very much out of touch.

There is no doubt in my mind: the conditions relating to urban violence, and how they impact urban school climates, are the most pressing problems in our nation's inner city schools. They are the main barriers to better student performance and higher teacher retention. And as charter schools draw off the strongest families in our cities, the concentration of students from less-able parents – who are also the ones who present the greatest challenges – is becoming higher and higher at the traditional public schools.

Honestly, despite all the money and energy being thrown at urban school reform, we’re really not seeing much of an effect, because the path which has been taken is not correct. Frank public recognition of the biggest problem, and finding ways to address it, is nowhere to be found in typical ed-reform discussions.

The best source I've discovered for learning about the behavioral dynamics in the inner-city setting is Elijah Anderson, sociology professor at Yale, formerly of the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of "Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City" and is also the editor of an insightful new book, “Against the Wall: Poor, Black, Young, and Male.” Both President Obama and Arne Duncan – as well as policymakers and America's citizens – would learn a great deal from Anderson’s work.

And on a related note, last winter I read a blog comment by a professor at Chico State University (Tony Waters on Bridging Differences) in which he referred to America’s “incarcerated class.” His phrase immediately rang true for me. The tragic and exponential rise in African American incarceration rates over the past decades is both causing, and resulting in, damage to many, many children. An increasingly tragic cycle is being produced.

This is a comment I posted yesterday on The Education Report:

On nearly every post here at the Education Report, people will eventually make comments that relate to the chronically intolerable/near-intolerable conditions caused by student misbehavior and its effects. Has anyone else noticed?

The in-hospitability of urban public school climates is NOT solely an OUSD issue, it’s present nationwide. The amount of student misbehavior that schools are expected to cope with these days is a big, widespread problem and has come about as a result of complicated and tragic societal forces, and decisions that seemed right at the moment but produced negative effects over time.

Does anyone know an entire school district with similar demographics that’s managing these challenges extremely well? Which specific schools in Oakland have this issue totally under control? How much do the student, teacher, and principal demographics influence their practices? How much can the techniques be replicated at other sites, and how can that be done?

Do some schools boast about their accomplishments, but then operate by rules or in conditions that can’t be transferred on a wider basis? Is the exclusive enrollment practiced by charters (like refusing to deal with the types of students in Special Day Classes or those who are more defiant) the only way to go? If so, where then should those many more difficult students be educated? Just how much of the difficult student behavior can be suppressed? What are the legal and civil rights issues that need to be considered?

I once heard a sociologist refer to America’s “incarcerated class.” Looking at the African American incarceration rates over the past decades, and thinking about the families those rates affect, maybe he’s onto something. So is it time yet to publicly admit that we probably have an established caste system in the US, and that the problems we’re talking about just might be connected to that?

The issue about school climate is THE “big nut” to crack. Finding strategies to deal with this difficult issue should have been placed at the very top of the urban educational reform list.

Unfortunately, educational reformers from the corporate world — who don’t understand or care about what is really going on in the trenches — are in control right now. They’ve been leading us down the path where everyone fixates on test scores, and scapegoats teachers, etc. because those are strategies that will eventually lead to the corporate world making a buck. Education entrepreneurship in a wide number of forms (tutoring, test materials, coaching, etc.) is now a huge, and growing, billion-dollar business, which developed from specific intent. In the 1980’s these people realized that the billions spent on public education was an untapped well of profit, so they made their political connections and have taken charge ever since. And so far we have let them.

If both OUSD and the City of Oakland would set its main focus on improving school climates, and if the school board and our superintendent addressed it at every turn, we could become a model for the rest of the nation — we’re a district of manageable size. But they will need firm pressure AND help in the form of fresh ideas and feedback. Constant put-downs and abandonment of the public schools don’t do anything to help our community as a whole.

How about more people writing letters to demand that the district turns its attention to school climate? How about asking the district to form a task force &/or department that compiles research, generates ideas, makes recommendations, monitors progress, and keeps up an exchange with the community? How about demanding that charter schools take their fair share of more challenging students? How about asking charters to use some of their innovation potential and extra funding to develop special programs for managing the more difficult students?

At any rate, these are the issues education reform needs to be dealing with, and I am certain you know this, too -- because of the questions you chose to ask Arne Duncan. How sad that his best response was “It’s crazy, it just doesn’t make any sense to me” and that his friend, John Rogers, said basically the same thing.

If these powerful people deeply understood the message in Anderson’s work, they would have been able to move beyond just describing things as “crazy.” They would know that the antisocial behavior exhibited by urban youth these days is, oddly, an adaptive and very human response to chronically horrific economic conditions. To understand urban violence, people need to read Anderson's explanation about the issue of "respect."

And if more people were aware of all these things, then maybe there would be hope for developing the plan for what needs to be done next.




philip said...

Dear Sharon,

I apologize for not getting back to you through the EFHG website. I had a baby (well, my wife did the hard part) and I am only now returning to the online world. In fact, I hear a baby in the distance and need to run!

Keep up this great work!!!!

philip kovacs

nikto said...

Here's a great opinion piece by Diane Ravitch from today's
LA Times:

('m sure Eli Broad hates it),0,4585380.story

And another fine piece from last week along similar lines:

And here's the June Graduation section from the Time's "journal"-type series about Green Dot's takeover of Locke HS in LAUSD.

Clearly, throughout the series, the writer is spinning for Locke the whole time, but has enough honesty (or carelessness) in this section to let some tellingly truthful details of actual student behavior slip out:,0,2545367.story

nikto said...

Another good article questioning the "reform" movement:

(some of the reply-posts are garden-variety dumb though) :(

ed notes online said...

Check out Russo on Chavis' book. I left your entire piece as a comment.

Carrie and/or Adrian said...

Wow. Great, well-written, thoughtful stuff. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I think that survey data, teacher reports, and observations demonstrate that new small schools in Oakland have already cracked the big nut of school climate. That's what small schools were all about initially, and now on the big high school campuses there is order where there was disorder and engagement where there was open defiance. But students are still graduating with reading levels in the 4th-8th grade range. THAT is the nut to crack: how to close skill gaps among impoverished youth with all the challenges you mention. That is a matter of teaching quality, and it is not the stuff of high drama. It takes work, and the infrastructure needed is: practices and policies that improve teacher recruitment and retention (competitive salaries, rewarding good performance, reasonable workload), school-day time for training and collaboration (an administration and union issue), and expertise that is sorely lacking in districts (and teacher prep programs).

The Perimeter Primate said...

John Thompson discusses a Chicago School Consortium report about failures of the teaching method system, Instructional Development System (IDS), to produce achievement by fixating on "rigor and relevance."

The report's conclusion stated:
"IDS focuses its support on teachers, .... The need for paying additional attention to student academic and behavioral support may, however, be overshadowing the programmatic changes IDS brings."

Yup. Anyone who knows anything about these schools and their students could have figured that one out.