Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On “So Much Reform, So Little Change”

“After spending more than thirty years working in urban education, I have finally found a lucid description of many of the things I experienced as a classroom teacher and administrator. Hopefully the education community will use Dr. Payne's observations and insights in their efforts to improve urban education.” (Amazon reviewer, T. Tenny on "So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools" by Charles Payne)

In an effort to promote this book, I offer you a few excerpts from the first chapter. The bolds are mine.

Chapter 1: Dimensions of Demoralization

If we take organizational morale to be “the enthusiasm and persistence with which a member of a group engages in the prescribed activities of that group” (Manning 1991), the fact that an institution needs to squelch and marginalize its most energetic, most enthusiastic, or best-prepared members tells us these are demoralized institutions…

All this stands behind clocks that don’t get fixed and broken windows that don’t get repaired. Failed institutions make the simplest things difficult. The problems manifest themselves in so many ways that they may obscure the fact that many of the discrete problems are either generated by or reinforced by the sheer lack of connectedness among people. Giving up on the institutional mission goes hand in glove with giving up on one’s colleagues. The denizens of demoralized social spaces do what they have to but without little heart or hope. (p. 23)

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Whenever we talk about the social climate in inner-city schools, we need to make a special effort to remember that what we are seeing has structural roots. It is all too easy to see grown people acting like fools and assume that’s all they are. Take a decently functioning suburban school, take away 40 percent of its funding, most of its better teachers, and the top-performing 50 percent of its students, and see how much fun faculty meetings would be after that. If we give people an enormously challenging task and only a fraction of the resources they need to accomplish it, sooner or later they start to turn on one another, making the job more difficult still. If we are not mindful of the inadequacy of the resource base, it always seems as if the problem is just those nutty people teaching in urban schools, as opposed to the conditions under which we expect them to teach. (p. 24)

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About the manifestation of weak social webbing and the Principle of Negative Interpretation:

Whatever other people do is interpreted in the most negative way possible. If parents don’t show up at school, what does it mean? That they don’t care. If a colleague fails to make hall duty, what does it mean? That she’s blowing off her responsibility. If a principal fails to observe classes? She doesn’t care about the kids. But if parents do show up? They’re just coming to stick their noses in our business. If the colleague shows up for hall duty? Sucking up to the principal. If the principal does start doing observations? She’s just trying to impress the people downtown—and why is she just starting now? If a teacher is really nice to students, they may take that as proof she thinks they’re dumb and won’t hold them to any standards. If she’s mean? Racist bitch. Ambiguous evidence is consistently interpreted in the most negative way possible; no one gets the benefit of the doubt. (p. 25)

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A negative climate is fertile ground for the development of factions—older teachers versus younger ones; primary-grade teachers versus upper grade; third-floor teachers against first-floor teachers; constructivist, inquiry-oriented teachers versus traditional ones; teachers in the annex against teachers in the main building; Spanish-speaking teachers against English-speaking ones; U.S.-born Spanish-speaking teachers against Spanish-speaking teachers born elsewhere. Race and ethnicity are powerfully implicated in these divisions—as well as in most aspects of school interpersonal dynamics—but rarely acknowledges the 800-pound gorilla that everyone pretends not to see. (p. 27)

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It bears repeating that climates of pervasive distrust mean that schools cannot make use of financial and technical resources even when they become available. Inner-city schools are criminally under-resourced; still, in demoralized schools, making resources available hardly means they will ever be brought to bear. Expensive teaching materials sit on a shelf because teachers don’t believe they will make any difference, or they wind up in the room of a teacher who has political pull but no notion of how to use them. Those conservatives who say urban school systems waste substantial resources are exactly right, however little they understand the context. (p. 30)

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The weak social webbing of bottom-tier schools makes it difficult for the schools to use resources from the outside, but is also degrades the human resources already there. In the toughest schools, change agents would be well advised to proceed as if operating in a place suffering from collective depression. (p. 31)

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An excerpt from a study done by the Consortium on Chicago School Research:

Social trust is a highly significant factor. In fact, it may well be that social trust is the key factor associated with improving schools. Teachers in the top 30 schools generally sense a great deal of respect from other teachers, indicating that they respect other teachers who take the lead in school improvement efforts and feel comfortable expressing their worries and concerns with colleagues. In contrast, in the bottom 30 schools, teachers explicitly state that they do not trust each other. They believe that only half of the teachers in the school really care about each other and they perceive limited respect from their colleagues.

There were similar patterns in terms of parent-teacher trust: “In the bottom 30 schools… teachers perceive much less respect from parents and report that only about half of their colleagues really care about the local community and feel supported by parents.” (p. 34)

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It goes without saying that the schools with the weakest social webbing are likely to be concentrated in the neighborhood with the weakest social capital… neighborhoods with strong social capital are four or five times as likely to have high-functioning schools as neighborhoods where the residents feel disconnected from one another. At the neighborhood level and at the school level, our most vulnerable students are vulnerable precisely because they are surrounded by adults who cannot cooperate with one another. (p. 38)

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The theme of the next two chapters is that demoralized environments lead to people being invested in the failure of those around them. My failure gives me reason to hope for yours. The more plausibly parents can point the finger at teachers, the less they need to worry about how good a job they are doing as parents. The more teachers can point to the inadequacies of principals, the less reason for scrutinizing their own behavior. At the same time, principals have to answer to the people downtown, and as chapter 5 will argue, that has meant answering to people who are collectively incompetent and technically irresponsible. There has not been much connection between the things that animate them and the lives of children and parent and teachers. Yet if principals want to keep their jobs, they have to keep these people happy. This, then, is the terrain against which inner-city principals must lead, with the legitimacy of their position up for questioning from the very beginning, with the people around them predisposed to being critical and carping and the people above them capable of doing little more than posing new problems. Small wonder that the micropolitics of many failing schools becomes particularly contentious or that many principals can’t find a better way to negotiate their situation than by becoming petty autocrats. (p. 41)

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I suspect that one of the reasons we have such persistent difficulty appreciating how damnably hard it is to change urban schools is the lack of respect we have for the people who work in them, which then predisposes us to simplistic answers. It is useful to be reminded that it is not, fundamentally, a problem that can be reduced to just the people in schools. The people in inner-city schools are reacting to sustained failure much as people in other failed institutions do. (p. 45)

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The fundamentally ahistorical, nonsociological, and decontextualized thinking that dominated this discourse makes it hard to appreciate the overdetermined nature of failure in the inner city. If we did appreciate it, we wouldn’t have so many proposals that assume that if we just had more accountability, if we just had better teachers, if the teachers just cared more about children, if we just paid them more, if we could just operate schools under free-market principles, if we could just operate them more democratically, if we just put a computer on every desk, if we could just get schools to make decisions based on data, if we could just make lifelong learners of teachers, if we just put teachers in professional learning communities, if we just guaranteed every child a college education, everything wourd be all right. There is a mammoth disconnect between what we know about the complex, self-reinforcing character of failure in bottom-tier schools and the ultimately simplistic thinking behind many of the most popular reform proposals. What this seems to imply is not an argument for this or that program, but rather, for a style of work, a more intensive and robust way of intervening. (p. 45)

The PP says:

One of the things that bugs me the most is the cruel and insulting speech that accompanies the current reform movement. It is usually spoken by people who have never personally experienced these schools, and, therefore, it comes from a place that has no understanding of the dynamics. This harmful speech is the exact opposite of what those schools need, because it only produces more demoralization. That is just one reason why I don't trust the reformers or their motives.


nikto said...

Another great post, PP.

From my teacher's heart,
Thank You!

Here's a little supplemental reading
on the topic that, teachers cannot be the cure-all for society's ills:

melody said...

I agree with you. Charles Payne's book is great. He expertly diagnoses the problems of urban schools. It's so sad that the education reform conversation in national policy circles has ignored him.

nikto said...

Here's an article that leads me to wonder...

Is it now the business of America to destroy education wherever it exists?

Check this out:

The Perimeter Primate said...

Links to the segments

Alexander and Stevenson

Moyers on income inequality

Incarceration and prison spending