29 September 2010

Designed to Fail - Education in America: Part Five

part one    part two    part three    part four


If those who seek to follow the Arne Duncan model of school reform want to argue with me about the inherent colonialism/racism of their plans, then perhaps they should begin by discussing why they won't embrace "real reform" - the re-design of our educational system.
"America has never had an educational system worthy of itself. Why is the American high school so out of touch with American life? Is it because the boundaries of education are no longer correctly drawn."

"Our schools imagine that students learn best in a special building separated from the larger community. Teachers and administrators are included in the group of educators; parents, employers, businessmen, ministers are excluded. The year-around Parkway Program sets up new boundaries and provides a new framework in which the energy of all of us can be used in learning, not in maintaining an obsolete, inefficient system.

"There is no schoolhouse, there is no separate building; school is not a place but an activity, a process. We are indeed a school without walls. Where do students learn? In the city. Where in the city? Anywhere and everywhere." - Greenberg and Roush. A Visit to the 'School without Walls': Two Impressions (1970)

"In other words, we are assuming (1) that learning takes places best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that "problems" and personal interests rather than "subjects" are a more realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them." - Neil Postman (1969)
No tests. No grading. No age-based grades. Few classrooms. Few classes. Teacher and learner agency. No core curriculum. No particular time schedule. The complete opposite of RheEducation. And yet...
"Last summer there were 10,000 applications for only 500 places - they've got a good thing going and it's a seller's market." - Greenberg and Roush. A Visit to the 'School without Walls': Two Impressions (1970)

"Ninety-seven percent of a 1980s 3I graduating class attended four-year colleges and universities, compared to a regular-school continuing-education rate that was much lower despite including vocational schools and military service." Report on the Postman-designed school above.
No, neither of these schools, Philadelphia's Parkway Program or New Rochelle (NY)'s Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study ("3i"), nor any of the dozens of similar schools across the U.S. in the 1960s through early 1980s, were "the solution" for every student. Nor were they ever promoted that way. But these were not elite schools either, racially and academically diverse (often to extremes), sought after by those students failing in the "general" school programs, often a dumping ground for special needs students and problem behavior cases - these schools often worked with the very type of student now expected to succeed only if given a KIPP education. They were also all public schools, with unionized teachers.

The concepts were student empowerment, teacher freedom, community, and authentic assessment. Alan Shapiro (Postman's partner in the New Rochelle school): "Who or what has ever made anyone in the 3Is take more classes than he/she wants to take? First year student Richard Hobbs during his two years in the 3Is probably didn't take more than one or two and, if I remember correctly, didn't even get credit for them. He graduated. (See Ira Socol and Tom Murphy on the art of not taking classes; on the other hand, for the art of taking classes, see Kim Jones, who amassed something like 12 credits and graduated after her sophomore year.)" The New Rochelle students: "A group project is one that is usually set up and worked through by a group of students and a teacher. A good example is a project associated with Ward Acres, a tract of land of about 60 acres in the middle of a residential area of New Rochelle. On about 15 acres of it, 3I students are trying to set up an educational farm for the public schools. They are planning gardens, restoring nature study trails, and studying the ecology of the area." Greenberg and Roush: "...having found a good thing. There was a real chance to to learn for yourself here and learn what you wanted: no grades to create destructive competitiveness and external reward emphases; no rigid requirements to restrict horizons and close off philosophical inquiry." William Nelsen on a Philadelphia "Storefront School" [1]: "Sophia House could present the record of its students in terms of college acceptance, entrance exams, and high school completion. Such traditional measuring devices may not always be possible in the storefront school. Certain tests may not accurately measure the performance or progress of disadvantaged children."

"The Couch" in "The White Room" - New Rochelle, New York "school without walls"
"The whole scene oozed with activity and life and while there was no apparent order to it all, a sense of purpose seemed evident... I asked [the head teacher] if he would identify the kinds of things that were going on about us. His response - quick and unqualified - was to the effect that he had no idea what the activities consisted of, that it was furthermore not his business to know, and that the participants had defined the content, value, and details of their pursuits and were probably doing whatever it was they felt it important to do." - Greenberg and Roush. Philadelphia
Most of these schools vanished in the conservative movement which swept the United States in the years after Ronald Reagan came to power. But the success of these "counter-intuitive" schools helps to illustrate some essential truths:
  • Students are smarter than we too often think, and they are great learners, just not always in the classroom.
  • Disadvantaged and "troubled" students can succeed with the same freedoms as elite students.
  • Student choices make a huge difference.
  • Our rules often get in the way of creating effective learning environments.
  • Teachers - given freedom - can be great mentors.
  • There are an awful lot of learning resources outside the classroom, and the school.
  • Schools can function without grading.
  • Schools can function - well - without age-based grades.
Life Magazine, 1971
"We had a dirt fight in Central Park."

We know some other things as well, especially about teaching, as Gary Stager and Dave Britten brought out yesterday. Britten finds a 106-year-old British educational commission statement about what is "right" and what is "wrong" in teaching, which directly counters all that the U.S. government currently argues is true: "The American teacher thinks of his functions as a teacher and director of the studies, while the British teacher is driven by the force of circumstances to conceive and direct his work entirely in terms of examinations. As long as examinations control the teaching, whether in universities or the schools of this country, teaching will continue to be academic in the worst sense of the word, cribbed, cabined, and confined."

Stager reminds us of a more recent statement of the same: "It is this freedom of the teacher to decide and, indeed, the freedom of the children to decide, that is most horrifying to the bureaucrats who stand at the head of current education systems," said Seymour Papert in 1990.

The political problem is that embracing these known understandings of education requires abandoning the filtering system of "education" we have used in America since the Civil War. Embracing these ideas would require that we - as a society - elevate teachers in pay and respect to or above the level of lawyers, bankers, and perhaps medical doctors (something @GovChristie called "ridiculous" on Easter Sunday 2010). Embracing these concepts would threaten the power structure of our society by giving a much wider range of children the chance to succeed.
Born on the bottom and staying there. America's Caste System.
So we do not embrace these concepts, or any other form of systemic changes, because our national "leadership" is simply not interested in changing the dynamics of who succeeds (this links to one of my most controversial posts - explaining why I believe our schools do not embrace universal design). [as Anders Björklund and Markus Jäntti explained in 1997 -  Intergenerational Income Mobility in Sweden Compared to the United States - socialist Sweden shows much greater income mobility than capitalist America]

Instead, in Tyack and Cuban's words, we "tinker," and alternately blame teachers, unions, students, parents for the system's designed failure.

Larry Cuban: "There is so much chatter in an urban district when undertaking major reforms such as pay-for-performance, charters, new reading curricula, and professional development, that determining whether daily teaching has changed to mirror the reform designs gets ignored. And without reliable information, little can be said about whether students are learning (and not learning) or whether changes have occurred that might (or might not) be picked up by existing state tests."

To track this politically is essential. The period of 1960 to 1980, when Lyndon Johnson's (now much maligned) War on Poverty transformed America's poor from "third world" status to simply impoverished, America's schools aggressively unionized, school desegregation was both the law and the deed, and open classrooms and alternative schools proliferated, were the one period in US history when educational achievement of the nation as a whole improved, and the one period where the "achievement gap" closed. [2]

I will not pretend to use some form of regression analysis to parse out which of these factors contributed most, but it is important to see that all of these efforts are currently under attack from the wealthiest segments of American society. From Chris Christie to Mark Zuckerberg, from Oprah to Bill Gates Jr., from Michael Bloomberg to Eli Broad, issues of poverty and unequal opportunity are ignored while teacher unions, teacher agency, student freedoms, and desegregation are attacked, and none of these powerful figures embraces this simple call from Diane Ravitch, "as a society we have to act on the other problems, such as poverty and homelessness, which contribute to poor educational outcomes. We should not punish schools and teachers because they have a high number of kids who are poor or homeless or aren’t native English speakers. We have to do something to help those students have a better life." [3]

This is not easy stuff to consider in a society where wealth is worshipped and the wealthy are cultural heroes. We cling to our myths of social mobility and "anyone can be President" [4] and are loath to consider that there is a system working against us [5].
The "Old" Customs House at Bowling Green in New York (now the National Museum of the American Indian).
The facade has the 12 races of mankind represented as faces above the windows. (copyright Dave Pear)
It is also not easy to fully understand when I have too often, in this series, used the term "white" in a way unfamiliar to many. These are the dangers of becoming too comfortable with academic discourse, as my friend Chad Ratliff has helped me understand. So I need to pause here, at the end, and note that "White" as it has been used here is a concept of power. "White" is a skin color - and that skin color does come with privileges in certain situations. But "white" is also a position in society groups must strive to achieve. (See How the Irish Became White, by Noel Ignatiev. Remember that in 19th Century America, Irish Catholics - despite typically having extraordinarily low levels of melanin - were routinely compared to apes and considered - racially - essentially the same as African-Americans.)

But who is making these decisions for us - in government, in business, in philanthropy, in media - and why are critical questions we must ask. The nature and design of the system is what we must investigate.

The systems designed in 1840 - 1860 are rarely with us anymore, in fact - except for our schools and our balky federal government - they are long gone. We do not manufacture like that, we do not bank like that, we do not communicate like that, but our classrooms, schools, districts, and grade-level systems are still largely as Henry Barnard left them, our curriculum has been static in form since the 1890s, our learning technologies would pretty much be recognized easily by William Alcott. At least this is true for poor kids. Rich kids get something very different - Great Neck, NY still has it's "Parkway Program" clone, so does Ann Arbor, MI, but kids in Philadelphia and New Rochelle are out of luck.

That split in education echoes the national income split: "The income gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew last year to its widest amount on record. The top-earning 20 percent of Americans — those making more than $100,000 each year — received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line, according to newly released census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968."

Why do schools for the 'falling middle' and poor of America stay the same - or go backwards - while those for the wealthy transform? Who does this division benefit?

We can continue to allow the wealthy and powerful to watch education from their corporate suites - with eyes on future profits - and belittle teachers, insist that students "work harder," and complain that parents are lazy and that voters in Washington are stupid, but that will leave the kids we see every day at the mercy of a class that wants them to remain exactly where they are. And the facts - and we know these facts from our positions working with kids in schools - demonstrate that most teachers are trying incredibly hard with almost no support, that most kids are working their butts off in an environment which works against all their learning instincts and patterns, and that America's middle class and poor parents are overwhelmed, with none of the parenting supports which more 'pro-family' European nations provide (living wages, parenting time, vacation time, health care, free or very inexpensive universities).

So instead, we must bring a national focus to a system designed - in funding inequity, in test regimes, in its very structure - to fail our students. We must force a true national debate - about learning, about opportunity, about poverty, about childhood, about support for parenting - and ultimately about creating "schools" - or "learning spaces" which will offer all of our children a real chance to succeed.

This true debate will not come from those looking down on education and seeing it simply as a system of worker creation, or as a system of keeping America "on top," or as system of engineering new kinds of citizens. It can only come - as William Alcott saw more than 170 years ago - from those who understand students as human learners, those who understand, through observation and contact, that students are individuals, and not value-added industrial parts.

This true debate will not, can not, start with GE/Comcast/NBC, nor Bill Gates, nor Oprah, nor Arne Duncan and Barack Obama, surely not with a guilt-racked rich kid filmmaker [6]. They all have different agendas. The debate, the movement, must begin, from the ground up, with us.

- Ira Socol
who wants to thank you all for reading

with a special thanks to Will Richardson for asking the question which got me to bring this research out into the blogosphere.

[1] in The Journal of Negro Education, 1971.

[2] I am not using radical theorists to support these conclusions, but the Educational Testing Service
and the Harvard School of Economics.

[3] See also Diane Ravitch Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform and The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

[4] "Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic President," says whitehouse.gov
as if there might have been a second (The Republican Party has never even nominated anyone for President who was not White, Male, and Protestant). Only two African-Americans have ever been elected as governors in the United States (Douglas Wilder in Virginia and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts). Only three African-Americans have ever been elected (by statewide vote) to the United States Senate (Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Carol Moseley-Braun and Barack Obama from Illinois).

[5] Europeans, who seem to worship other heroes - authors in Ireland, soldiers in Britain, scientists in France (to use stereotypes) - have a fairly easy time seeing the system as unfair by nature, which may explain the higher levels of political participation as they attempt to change that.

[6] Davis Guggenheim, director of Michelle Rhee's favorite movie, Waiting for Superman, is one more Sidwell Friends expensive private school graduate (and private school parent) who is telling public school kids how they must learn.


Stuart Buck said...

" The period of 1960 to 1980, when Lyndon Johnson's (now much maligned) War on Poverty transformed America's poor from "third world" status to simply impoverished, America's schools aggressively unionized, school desegregation was both the law and the deed, and open classrooms and alternative schools proliferated, were the one period in US history when educational achievement of the nation as a whole improved, and the one period where the "achievement gap" closed."

This is a very problematic statement.

1) You don't have evidence of the 1960-1980 period. The source you cite on the achievement gap starts in 1971 or 1973.

2) The achievement gap didn't stop narrowing in 1980. That's simply false. In all cases, the gap narrowed until at least 1986 or 1988; bounced around during the 1990s; and then has mostly narrowed in the 2000s again.

3) You have no evidence as to the prevalence of so-called "open classrooms and alternative schools." My hunch is that they were always a very small minority of schools, nowhere enough to affect the achievement gap one way or the other. Can you prove otherwise?

irasocol said...

Stuart Buck is my first experience with an obsessive fan, and its somewhat endearing. He reads "selectively" of course, managing to pick out bits of statistics which confirm his views and blocking out those which don't, but that's what makes a political pundit these days - and that, of course - is Stuart's goal, a FoxNews spot with his "Ivy League credential" splashed across the bottom of the screen.

Interesting to note, of course, that Washington DC's "blue ribbon" public school follows the open classroom/open education model today. The district's single biggest success.

- Ira Socol

Stuart Buck said...

Pure ad hominem, zero facts. You can do better!

irasocol said...

Sure, but its not worth wasting the effort on someone with a fully closed mind.

Also, might be "ad hominem" (I know you love showing off your Ivy League vocabulary), but that does not suggest that it isn't true.

- Ira Socol

Stuart Buck said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
irasocol said...


Get your own blog. Try contributing to - and engaging a world wider than those who have praised you all of your "prodigy" life. When I can comment directly on your work - in your place - in an open environment, you'll be welcome again to comment here.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

Part of what's interesting to me about this is the intention of the 'reformers.'

I have trouble imagining Oprah saying, "If I sustain class inequality through failed public education, no one will threaten my empire!!" I don't have a hard time with those 'colonialists' in the 1800s saying this, or more sinister elites of today, chatting around a table in an exclusive smoking club or something.

The point being that the system gives one easy places to plug in, rhetorically. If you say you're doing something to help inner-city schools, then Oprah likes you. You might have the best intentions, and Oprah has the best intentions, but you're still perpetuating the system of sanctimony.

At this point I can't help but think about Mr. Rogers. A sincere advocate for children, taken out of circulation by the fate of all morals. Replaced by Barney the dinosaur, who can be eternal because he is artificial. Criticize Barney, and you hear: "But he says nice things to kids, just like Mr. Rogers did!"

So goes education.


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Unknown said...

I thought the first of these pieces was insightful, but then they seemed to go downhill. It seemed to degenerate to a series of personal attacks demonizing the other side and questioning their good will. I am sorry it did not stay with examining questionable assumptions that even people of good will (not colonialists and rich white people) can have. This will no doubt get blocked so I will stop here.