Saturday, February 14, 2009

Seeking Your Perspective Re: K-12 Education Reform + Update

Dear Dr. Anderson,

I hope this note finds you well and staying warm enough!

Perhaps you remember our few exchanges by email last April. Since that time I have continued to spread the word about your work because of its extraordinary value.

Today I am writing to you to seek your opinion. I have been trying to process an idea, and I hope that you will give me your perspective.

For the past several years, I have become increasingly involved with trying to understand inner-city issues as they relate to the current education reform movement, as well as to the situation at my local public schools. From the research and thinking I have done, I have come to believe that the most recent reform approach, one of NCLB penalties and the installation of charter schools, will never be enough to get to the root of the problem for the young people in those communities.

In discussions about “what is wrong,” the profound impact of decades of underemployment, as well as the extent of the damage and suffering which it has caused to families, are nearly always ignored. The focus of the current crop of education “reformers” has been narrowed exclusively on the supposed inadequacies of inner-city public schools and their teachers, and this is where the blame is most often assigned. I have come to believe that teachers and schools are being made the scapegoats to avoid discussion or correction of the true, enormous underlying issues.

One reason "Code of the Street" was so fascinating to me was because of your insights about "decent" and "street" families. I recognized the two types immediately. Here in
Oakland, I suspect the charter schools are being sought out by decent-oriented families in part in an attempt to provide their children an escape from street-oriented school mates and the havoc at school which they often cause. The resulting effect is the increasing stratification of students, school by school.

My notion is that the low-income Black parents who seek out charter schools for their children are a specific type, the type who is more likely to stress the importance of education to their children and to support the mission of the school in their homes (= “decent”). I believe that their children are more likely to end up with greater academic achievement than the children who happen to have been born to parents who lack enough of that focus.

To enroll a child in a charter school requires more forethought, effort, research and consideration on the part of the parent. This makes the population of charter school families a self-selected one. Charter schools prefer to deny this, but I know for certain it must be the case. I have learned from personal experience that some parents, through no fault of their own, have very extreme limitations in regard to supporting their children’s educations and complying with the mission of their children's schools.

Once the parents who are willing to invest the energy in seeking out a charter school are separated from those who won’t, there are additional features about charter schools which separate the nature of their families even more. Many charter schools are permitted to have stricter policies which require minimum levels of parental involvement and compliant student behavior. Families must sign contracts and their obligations are monitored.

Also, some of the schools are known to place pressure on students with low-performance or problems with behavior, sometimes just before state testing. Sometimes this pressure is so great that students will leave the charter school, in which case it is justified as not being “a good fit.” Then those students arrive at the regular local public school to enroll. Those schools are required, by law, to accept every child despite any poor academic and/or behavior records.

There is no reciprocity between charter and regular public schools. The regular public schools must accept and serve all students, even the most-difficult-to-educate ones, but charter schools are not required to do the same. In addition, regular public schools cannot require parent involvement, and have no teeth for enforcing it either.

So, I am beginning to envision an inner-city school landscape where charter schools appear more and more successful simply because they collect and concentrate the children of “decent” families. Additionally, they become the recipients of large donations from philanthropists because they appear to be educating inner-city minority children more effectively than the regular public schools. It is rarely admitted that the charter schools and the regular schools have an increasingly different population of families.

While all this is happening, the regular public schools end up becoming less and less successful, because the concentration of the more challenging “street-oriented” kids is getting higher and higher. And as the percentage of challenging students grows, these schools appear to become worse and worse. Discipline problems and truancy percentages increase, and any remaining “decent” families who use the school begin to reject them. Community support for these schools languishes.

So, Dr. Anderson, these are my concerns. I greatly hope you will have time to respond to me, and confirm, rebut, or expand upon them from your point of view. Feel free to reach me by email or by phone.

Gratefully yours,
S. H.

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Within two hours I had received a call from Dr. Anderson. We talked on the phone for nearly an hour.

From his perspective as a sociologist who has spent a lifetime studying the inner-city Black community, he confirmed my notion on this post.

According to Anderson, it is the more enterprising parents who will move their kids out of the public schools and into charters because they think the charters provide more opportunity. They are parents who monitor their kids closely. Of course, one of the main opportunities charter schools also offer is the ability for each group to self-segregate, the impetus of which, he explains, seems to be human nature.

This is bound to create a situation where the kids who don't have anyone to advocate for them – and who have weaker educationally-minded parents – will indeed all be stuck together in the regular inner-city public schools, without peers from any other groups to associate with. I described a potential situation caused by the current mode where the public schools will become filled with “untouchables” that nobody wants to be around or really cares about. We discussed how this scenario has parallels to the incarceration situation for Blacks that currently exists.

So it is obvious that one day, the question will be, “What is this nation going to do with all those children next?”

Anderson is so wise about these issues. He sees layers and layers of racial dynamics. By that I don’t mean just the usual ones that people generally talk about (black vs. white), but the many ranges of black group vs. black group dynamics in between.

He does see great hope with Obama being president, but also sees how everything Obama does is totally loaded with complex, and potentially politically-deadly racial booby traps. Obama has to proceed so very carefully.

I urged him to consider writing some of his thoughts about the way that racial and educational reform issues tie together, and if he does so, to please let me know.

(E.A.: If you read this, I hope it is okay. It is important to me to keep extending the conversation for everyone, so I wanted to reveal a few of the things we talked about.)


The Perimeter Primate said...

After sending this off this morning, I immediately received an automated reply stating that Dr. Anderson is on academic leave until September 2009.

So then I tried an alternative method of reaching him. I can't stand the idea of waiting until next fall for his response, so hopefully the second attempt will be successful.

Jonathan L said...

This trend is bourne out in NYC over the past 15 years. As neighborhood high schools were "phased out" and replaced with small schools that could pick and choose their incoming students the larger schools more and more became the schools of last resort - holding only those students who did not get accepted to other schools, or whose parents didn't have any pull. Thus begins the self-fullfilling downward spiral.
If you add in the consumerization of education among students, parents and teachers (i.e. the problem is the school, not the system) you get to today's world, where no one takes on the larger educations issues.

The Perimeter Primate said...

Thank you for verifying this from your perspective in another city.

Anonymous said...

Sharon, this is one of the best things I've read in some time. Bravo for so clearly tracing the vicious spiral - it's certainly not a cycle. It's a downward trend.

The Perimeter Primate said...

Thank you Clay. At this point in my thinking, I suspect the nation is sleepwalking as they head in this direction.

On the surface, what is happening sounds reasonable to so many people. To me, they don't seem to question deeply, or have much foresight.

My internal alarm bells are going absolutely crazy.

Anonymous said...

"My internal alarm bells are going absolutely crazy."
Yeah, me too.

I am a 30-year LAUSD veteran HS teacher,and lately, my alarm bells are just roaring, along with sirens, whistles, and screams
of terror.

America is undergoing a self-imposed Educational Emergency
in which Corporate interests are in full-attack mode against Public Education, and the destruction and damage to Public Schools are widespread and GROWING.


Unknown said...

Well done Sharon,
It's very interesting to read your blog. Most, if not all, your concerns are with us over here in the UK. I hope you can find the time to have a look at my blog at
I don't intend this merely as a plug for my newly created blog; I'm keen to link together all these fragments of dissent.
All the best,

Unknown said...

Well done Sharon,
It's very interesting to read your blog. Most, if not all, of your concerns are with us in the UK as well. I hope you can find the time to look at my blog:
I don't intend this message simply as a plug for my newly created blog! I am keen to join up these fragments of dissent.
Keep up the good work.
All the best,