Sunday, January 10, 2016

Schools are not all alike -- but children need the same things

Schools are not all alike. It's been pointed out many times that many of those who advocate so-called "no excuses" schools, with rigid rules and harsh discipline, for some children send their own children to a very different kind of school, generally with small class sizes and a curriculum emphasizing hands-on, project-based, engaged learning with opportunities for student choice.  Schools and districts also differ significantly in available resources and thus in class size, teacher quality, and opportunities for students.  Parallel to these differences, of course, and enhancing/exacerbating these differences, is the difference in student background and economic advantage in more affluent districts compared to the student background and economic disadvantage in less affluent districts.

A telling example of these differences comes from my own experience in an affluent suburban district.  Several years ago, the state decided to house a group of homeless mothers and children in a local motel in our community.  We welcomed the children and did our best to integrate them into our school.  They were uniformly astonished at our clean, spacious school and surprised by the field trips and other opportunities.  One boy, who was 15 years old and in the 8th grade, had significant behavioral issues and was "reading" at a pre-first grade, "beginning phonemic awareness," level.  He was unable to participate in our regular 8th grade program, even with considerable assistance, so we hired one of our substitute teachers to work 1:1 with him, and designed a half-day schedule for him focused on reading, writing, and math, and providing for many basketball-playing breaks as rewards for completing work.  After six months in our school, he was able to read and write at approximately a beginning second grade level.  Unfortunately, at that point, the state pulled all the families from that motel and we lost track of him. Many years later, his name appeared in a local paper, unfortunately in connection with criminal acts.  I can't help but think that his story could have been different had he been able to remain in a school with sufficient resources to make a difference for him.

Think about this boy in a school without the resources to provide 1:1 help and a specially designed schedule -- imagine him in a large class of students, some of whom also have learning problems and behavior issues.  Then think about the teacher of that class and what he needs to help him give the children in the class the help they need.  What immediately comes to mind?  Will it help him the most to require annual standardized testing, with the scores published in the news media, so that that he can see exactly how badly his students are performing?  And then to evaluate him based on his students' scores?  The theory of evaluating teachers and schools based on student test scores seems to be that by making achievement differences obvious communities will be forced to provide sufficient resources to alleviate the disparity.  In reality, all it does is create a culture of blame, and motivate teachers who can to move to districts with sufficient resources, thus exacerbating differences in teacher quality between more affluent and less affluent districts.

This boy, along with all children, needed attention, caring, and help -- and because our district had the resources we could provide those for him.  In too many others, the resources are not available, and labeling those schools and those teachers as substandard does nothing to fix the problem.

An excellent article in yesterday's New York Times Sunday Review, by David Kirp, gives an outstanding comparison.  The article is entitled "How to Fix the Country's Failing Schools. And How Not To," and compares the results of the top-down, "corporate reform" style approach in Newark to the "home-grown gradualism" approach in Union City.  The Union City approach, which appears to me to be based on educators working together, looking at the children's needs, and developing strategies to meet those needs, has been successful.  As noted in a wonderful Education Week article by Joanne Yatvin ("Catchers in the Rye," September 14, 1994):
"Where schools are failing, it is not because they don't have enough projects and programs, but because they have lost the human touch.  Children mired in the morass of family and community decay can't benefit from red ribbons, higher standards, or instructional technology; they need caring adults to pull them out of the much and set them on solid ground -- one at a time. . ."
All children need attention, caring, and help in their growth, but all schools are not alike -- some have the resources and some do not.  Children with fewer family resources and more challenges need more support, not less, and schools with children with more needs need resources and help rather than blaming.

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