Every school is a microcosm of the community it serves—that is, every school that serves any and all students in the neighborhood. Peaceful schools are nestled in peaceful environs. If there are drugs or violence in the streets, educators will contend with drugs and violence working their way into the school like crickets through unseen cracks. If there are racist or misogynistic attitudes in the homes, they will manifest themselves on campus. And so it goes. If there is materialism, superiority, entitlement, narcissism, coldness, anti-intellectualism, vanity, laziness, or greed ensconced in the hearts of the parents or grandparents or neighbors or pastors or businessmen or family friends who act out their human dialogues in the public space shared with students, then students will bring traces of those attitudes with them into class and the air will hang with secondhand dysfunction.
Educators spend entire careers—some without even realizing it—trying to accentuate and play off of students’ positive outside influences and minimize or at least sidestep their negative ones, just to prepare the groundwork so they can teach their content. Teaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum, an obvious fact which bears repeating only because it’s so common to hear people go on and on about teacher quality as the ultimate driver of student learning. Too many experts spout the mogul-endorsed “no excuses” mantra reflexively when the conversation turns to the context of student lives, and in so doing effectively refuse to talk seriously about the increasingly debilitating conditions of that context.
As though it doesn’t matter. As though it needn’t be tended to. As though a serious education can occur no matter what is going on there. “Poverty isn’t destiny” is trite and meaningless and pretends to honor poor kids for their wide-open potential while actually disrespecting their experiences and neglecting to patch their holes; it posits that there is no such phenomenon as generational need and that neither public policy nor wealth distribution warrants consideration as a contributing factor in the formation of American kids. Poverty is water in the gas tank of education, but its apologists facilely condemn a pit crew of teachers who—not allowed to say the water won’t combust—are pushing sputtering lives, but not fast enough, around a track where youthful suburban rockets whiz by in their mall rat garb.
Meanwhile, high-performing charter schools are portrayed as having cracked the code when it comes to educating poor inner city students. In reality, the quiet secret to their trumpeted success is simply a strategic divorce of cultures. Via lottery-purified enrollment, high-hurdled parent involvement, and hair-trigger expulsions, the highest of the high-performers embrace select children from the neighborhood while flatly rejecting the broad sweep of the neighborhood’s culture, preferring to substitute their own pre-manufactured culture-like products. Culture goes to neighborhood schools; it is there that we see the health or frailties our nation’s policies have wrought in our neediest zip codes. Tragically, creatively-selective charter schools portend national blindness to the suffering our policies foster.
This is, of course, far less inspirational than the heroic charter school packaging we see on Education Nation’s store shelves. Our nation’s model charters haven’t cracked a code for educating inner city students; they have cracked a code for isolating motivated inner city students and parents who see education as a way out of poverty, and filtering out the rest. They do this by implementing exclusionary practices not available to traditional schools. Charters are free to purify their campuses of undesirable test scores, and the media will reliably gloss over attrition rates and highlight academic results that have been fully uprooted from the context that saddles every nearby traditional public school. Ultimately, the hope of the school reformer is tangled up in a knot with non-universal education. When they hold up choice and charters as our nation’s panacea, their sleight of hand may temporarily obstruct our view of the kids left out on the sidewalk, the kids unwelcome in their brave new dynamic, but it doesn’t disappear them from the face of the earth. After charters capitalize on the manipulation of context, that context still exists and it still has a name and a face and a future. The media ulimately asks us to pretend that shuffling ruffians fixes them, that a shell game with troubled kids is something noble, is “the answer.” But context will win out.
Teaching is so complex. People who talk about it but don’t do it every single day—at least from my view—fall into a trap of self-congratulatory oversimplification. On a stage or on Meet the Press, a series of bumper sticker phrases may pass muster. Platitudes assembled just so construct a virtual reality that is convincing to well-meaning onlookers and passionate neophytes. But reform isn’t talk; in actual schoolhouses, those of us doing the work are busy educating rich kids, middle class kids, poor kids, special education kids, gifted kids, and every other kind of kid imaginable; and teachers who take their calling seriously—the majority, I like to think—have never NOT been reforming our practices. (Yes, it’s popular to say schools haven’t changed since our agrarian days because we still have summer break. But to believe in overwhelming educational stasis one has to ignore commonplace modernities like video production classes, students designing their own websites, homework turned in electronically, virtual field trips, all manners of creative scheduling, online courses, dual credit academic and vocational courses, podcasts, and dozens of other things no one ever heard of in the 1950s.)
The conventional pabulum leaves much to be desired for those of us with dry erase marks on our knuckles. Real educators have to discover (through trial and error) the right answers to specific, small-picture questions about curriculum, classroom management, facilities management, extracurricular activities, dress codes, instructional technology, content delivery, test prep, and so many other things. And in traditional schools, we can’t count on the magic “parental academic contract” fairy to wave her magic wand and disappear the students who “aren’t the right fit” (hat tip to Dr. Steve Perry for that euphemism).
Teaching isn’t as easy as it sounds. And neither is reform.
I don’t write to argue that improvement in the education of American minority students isn’t necessary. The reformers are right at the beginning of the conversation—there’s an emergency in our urban schools. But they are consistently wrong about their monolithic, ideology-driven cause, and about how to fix it. They are also wrong to pretend that there isn’t a whole family of non-school emergencies in our urban areas, and to play-act that schools should somehow be immune from the general devastation around them. If an earthquake hits, should the school building’s pictures not move? If a wave of poverty, drugs, and obliterated families inundates a neighborhood, should the school float above the fray?
They are at their most wrong and most disingenuous when they proffer exemplar schools and say, essentially, “Look here. This is what you could all do if you cared enough.” Secretary Duncan was wrong when he told us that Urban Prep Academy in Chicago was showing us the way; President Obama was wrong to single out Bruce Randolph School in Denver as a model of “what good schools can do.”
I believe fervently that Michelle Rhee and an army of like-minded bad-schools philosophizers will one day look around and see piles where their painstakingly-built sandcastles of reform once stood, and they will know the tragic fame of Ozymandias. Billion-dollar data-sorting systems will be mothballed. Value-added algorithms will be tossed in a bin marked History’s Big Dumb Ideas. The mantra “no excuses” will retain all the significance of “Where’s the beef?” And teachers will still be teaching, succeeding, and failing all over the country, much as they would have been if Michelle Rhee had gone into the foreign service and Bill Gates had invested his considerable wealth and commendable humanitarian ambition in improving law enforcement practices or poultry production.
They are building castles out of sand because they are deliberately ignoring the humanity of both student and teacher. What they are calling “excuses” are really “lives.” They are really saying, “No lives.” Lessons, yes. Teacher evaluation systems, certainly. Data, of course. But lives—real human idiosyncrasies and foibles and challenges that exist neither inside nor outside the schoolhouse but rather transcend both—those are left out of the reform equation.
If numbers-and-labels accountability is the way it’s going to be for schools then the only appropriate accountability possible will be contextual. A simple look at test scores—or even the slightly more granular value-added look at test score improvement—is grossly insufficient when one considers the vast differences between schools and the communities they serve. Socioeconomic differences, for example, but also school-to-school funding differences, student-selection differences, and attrition rates cannot be ignored. These are left out of the formulas, but not because they don’t make a difference in outcomes. Of course they do.
So we must ask the psychometricians to do much, much more; or we must ask them to quit. We must not allow them to burn up our fuel and funding and popular will on moonshots taken with half-right calculations that leave out inconvenient variables.
My nephew is studying to be an engineer. He talks about a course in fluid dynamics and leaves me with the impression that engineers use formulas that are accurate to a degree very near perfect. When we build towers and dams and bridges in our country, we rely on measures that don’t really allow for error. An engineer can tell you with absolute precision how much water can flow through a pipe of a given size buried at a given angle and pushed by a pump of a given capacity. Not with sixty percent accuracy, but with stunning exactitude. Construction is too important a task to leave variables out of the formulas. With big projects, failure can be catastrophic.
The formation of our children, of course, is even more important than that of our bridges. Formulas whose inaccuracies result in the annual arbitrary firing of several great teachers and the blanket terrorization of many, many more will undoubtedly be as devastating for our society as an erroneous building code. If the people who teach our kids are going to live and die by a value-added measure, it must be a comprehensive, context-honoring value-added measure. Per-pupil funding distinctions must be incorporated. Outside-of-school factors positive and negative must be figured in.
Until policy mavens give them contextual accountability, the ever-bitterer voices of teachers and their supporters will condemn the flawed formulas, along with heavy-handed tactics, profitable privatization schemes, and cheesy Hollywood anti-teacher porn. Educators whose livelihoods and reputations are being tossed around by pundits and policymakers deserve accurate labels and honest weights and measures; anything less is careless at best and reckless at worst. And until the psychometricians can come up with formulas that accurately reflect the reality of this amazing thing called education, they won’t truly be measuring what they claim to measure, and many of us will insist that they add nothing of value to the conversation.