Category Archives: History

Feminism, Child Development, and the Legacy of Shulamith Firestone

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 9.28.13 AMLike a lot of other people, I was riveted by Susan Faludi's New Yorker report on the work, life, and death of Shulamith Firestone, a Second Wave feminist theoretician and organizer whose name I knew, but whose legacy I was barely cognisant of. Faludi deals beautifully with Firestone's repressive Orthodox Jewish upbringing, her struggle with schizophrenia and social isolation, and the unfinished business of her particular brand of radical feminism, which declared that "pregnancy is barbaric" and childbirth is like "shitting a pumpkin." Those notions are shocking and perhaps ridiculous, but I nevertheless found insight in Firestone's observation — decades before Judith Warner's Perfect Madness and Elisabeth Badinter's The Conflict – that the increasing fetishization of childhood in the developed world has brought with it an unrealistic set of burdens on mothers, just as women finally earned the right to full lives beyond the domestic sphere. Describing Firestone's classic, The Dialectic of Sex, Faludi writes:

The book’s longest chapter, “Down with Childhood,” chronicled the ways that children’s lives had become constrained and regulated in modern society. “With the increase and exaggeration of children’s dependence, woman’s bondage to motherhood was also extended to its limits,” Firestone wrote. “Women and children were now in the same lousy boat.” The argument drew the appreciation of one notable feminist, which must have pleased Firestone. Simone de Beauvoir told Ms. that only Firestone “has suggested something new,” noting how the book “associates Women’s Liberation with children’s liberation.”

In an unforgiving economy with increasing social stratification, affluent Americans, unlike many European parents, obsess about providing their kids with the sorts of intellectually stimulating, resume-building experiences that supposedly prepare one for the rigors of meritocracy. The hours spent signing children up for activities, taking them there, and providing them with educational play and conversation at home are borne disproportionately by women, since mothers still do over twice as much childcare as fathers. And the burden of mothering expectations has gotten heavier since Firestone was writing: While both men and women now work more hours outside the home and do more childcare than they did at mid-century, mothers still spend far more time on domestic responsibilities than fathers do.

Yet today, one ought to balance this critique with evidence from contemporary child development research, which suggests that some of the practices of preening parents, such as constant "conversation" with even the smallest babies, really do yield cognitive and academic gains that last a lifetime. At the Times, Tina Rosenberg has a fascinating report on Talk Providence, a new program that aims to teach low-income mothers about the benefits of early vocabulary building through regular parental speaking to babies, and conversing back and forth with toddlers and older kids. It's important, however, to balance these expectations for mothers with continued support for childcare and school programs that serve the neediest kids — hence, President Obama's new pre-K proposalI'm skeptical of the claim, made by some vocabulary researchers, that changing parental conversational practices can alone erase socioeconomic achievement gaps. Vocabularly can't make up for the lack of social capital that prevents many poor children from enrolling in the most effective schools and extracurricular activities, or from eating a nutritional diet or living in adequate housing. 

Realistic Expectations for New Teacher Evaluation Systems

I'm seeing some off-the-mark responses to the news–first reported by Education Week's Stephen Sawchuck, and then picked up by the New York Times–that many of the new, high-stakes teacher evaluation systems are rating only 2-6 percent of teachers ineffective. This is being greeted by some supporters of numbers-driven teacher reform as a disappointment, while skeptics, like American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, are suggesting this proves the vast majority of teachers are great performers, after all. 

I don't think we can jump to either conclusion. First of all, the goal of these systems is not necessarily to fire large numbers of teachers, it is to help them improve their practice, since previously, most American educators received little constructive feedback on their work. Most new evaluation plans include more classroom observations, which means teachers are not just receiving number ratings, but actual notes and suggestions on their instruction. Of course, whether that feedback is helpful or useless depends entirely on the quality of the administrator.

Contra Nicholas Beaudrot, it's not true that education reformers have a "hazy" idea of how many bad teachers they'd like to see lose their jobs after this overhaul. I've asked a number of prominent accountability hawks that question over the past six years and the answer I've heard most frequently is "5 to 10 percent." As Matthew DiCarlo explains, that estimate is culled from the research of the ubiquitous Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, and by that standard, these evaluation systems are already half way to where they are intended to be, a reasonable outcome for something so new.

That said, I'm still quite skeptical that the new evaluation plans will transfrom the teaching profession, in part because of the lessons from history I'm learning as I research my book. For over a century, school reformers have been dissatisfied with how teachers are evaluated, yet overhauling rating systems has not, historically, been an effective way to improve educational outcomes for kids. This is like hoping to lose weight by buying a new, high-tech scale, without changing your diet or exercise routines.

During the late nineteenth century, the New York City schools used an "excellent-good-fair-bad" rating system for teachers. When reformer William Maxwell became superintendent in 1898, he complained that 99.5 percent of teachers were rated "good" and instituted a plan to grade teachers on an A-D scale instead. The city distributed intricate tables for judging teachers’ output. First, teachers would be measured by evidence of their students’ learning, which could be demonstrated through test scores or examples of children’s essays, penmanship, and drawings. Teachers would also be judged on their personal characteristics and given numeric ratings in largely subjective categories, such as “obedience,” “honesty of work,” “dress,” “voice,” and “force of character.” A teacher’s command of classroom discipline could be assessed by counting the number of students who were late or unruly, and even by timing the number of seconds and minutes it took for a teacher to distribute or collect worksheets. 

By the late teens, the vast majorty of teachers were earning perennial ratings of B+, the exact sort of slightly-better-than-average rating that had predominated under the previous plan. In prominent education journals, dissident principals like Alexander Fichlander, a Brooklyn leftist, explained that the paperwork involved with implementing the system was so burdensome that administrators rushed through it; what's more, there was little incentive to spend a lot of time rating teachers if the district provided no extra funding or training to those who needed to improve. Additionally, when managers find it is difficult to replace low-performing teachers with workers who are more effective–another likely outcome–they may decide evaluation systems are not worth their time.

Because of these problems, by mid-century, detailed evaluation systems were being replaced by simpler "satisfactory-unsatisfactory" plans, which today are being replaced by value-added measurement and frequent observation notes. But if the new evaluation systems end up being more about paperwork than about improving practice, then they, too, will fail to improve instruction and will lose their political palatibility.

“Hipsturbia:” Actually Becoming Browner, Poorer, and Older

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 3.46.44 PM
map via Andrei Scheinkman and Timothy Wallace, The Huffington Post

Like a lot of other folks, I was amused by yesterday's Times style section piece proclaiming the birth of "Hipsturbia": a supposedly new cluster of affluent, creative-industry white people who have moved from Brooklyn to the lower Hudson River Valley after procreating, mostly to the suburbs of Irvington, Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, and Tarrytown. As Jess Grose (Irvington's finest) notes at Slate, upscale white families have been moving from the city to those particular towns for many, many decades. The changes are really around the margins; now those emigrants are arriving not only from Manhattan, but also from the gentrified neighborhoods of Brooklyn, which means they're bringing all the associated cultural tics with them, like foodie snobbery. (And trust me, Westchester County could use a few more interesting restaurants.)

If we look at actual data, however, we'll notice that American suburbs are not becoming hipper and younger, but are in fact becoming poorer (as young adults with economic means increasingly choose to live in cities), browner (as immigrants and African Americans are priced out of central urban neighborhoods), and grayer (as the suburban population ages). I grew up near the Times' "hipsturbia" in a gorgeous riverfront town that illustrates all these trends: Ossining, New York. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the town fathers dreamed of building commuter-friendly luxury condos to attract more Wall Street workers, while farmer's market types hoped developers would instead renovate our downtown's historic warehouses and loft spaces, to attract artists. We all argued a lot and screamed at each other, because we wanted our town to have a broader tax base and be more culturally vibrant. But very little downtown development of any sort ever happened, and the reasons why demonstrate why the Times piece is so facile. 

First, Ossining was experiencing a massive influx of immigration from rural Ecuador, along with some of the visible social challenges — such as day-laborers on the streets, and bilingualism in the public schools — associated with immigration. Second, with a socioeconomically-mixed population, a maximum-security prison, and one of Westchester County's few clusters of public housing, many affluent, white parents were never interested in moving to Ossining, because the public schools simply can't boast the stratospheric test scores that are typically a feature of more homogenous school systems.

Most of the towns mentioned in the Times story buck the grayer-browner-poorer trend exactly because they have been so uniformly affluent for so long that they are able to resist the demographic tides overtaking the majority of suburbs. They do so, in part, by deliberately excluding affordable housing. (Tarrytown is an exception, with a more diverse population. And it's a very charming town.) In other words, there is nothing remotely counter-cultural about these Brooklynites moving to these specific Westchester villages. They might wear cooler glasses, but they are following the well-trodden paths of the Baby Boomers and World War II veterans before them.

Are these denizens of "hipsturbia" among the first in a new wave of defectors to the suburbs, or are they outliers? It remains unclear. One of the big questions demographers have about Generation Y and Millenials is whether our much-noted preference for city life will persist as we age and reproduce. We don't have great numbers on this yet, but if many more families make the same choice the Times is noting–moving to heavily white suburbs–both cities and suburbs will miss a lot of opportunities to create more racially and socioeconomically-integrated communities, which are great for kids, great for schools, and (in my opinion) great for society. 

Behind Obama’s SOTU Remarks on Vocational Education, Germany, and American High Schools

In his State of the Union address, President Obama promised to create a new federal funding stream to provide high school students with technical education, to help them prepare for the workforce. This is promising. As I've reported, during the first term, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan talked about vocational education almost exclusively in the context of post-secondary schools. That allowed the administration to dodge controversial, historically-freighted debates over K-12 "tracking," a practice that, throughout the twentieth century, pushed non-white students, girls, and the intergenerationally poor into lower-paid professions and away from college. But this political dodge also ignored some important research and innovation at the K-12 level.

For one thing, surveys of high school drop-outs show a leading cause of their leaving school is the belief that nothing they are learning in the classroom will help them get a job. What's more, a number of innovative new high schools across the country are pioneering a model for career and technical education that has little to do with the narrow vocational classes of yesteryear, in which kids were taught how to sew or operate a printing press — skills that technological change can render less relevant over time. Instead, at the MET schools in Rhode Island, Linked Learning schools in California, and at Tech Valley High outside Albany, high school students complete externships in real workplaces, exploring fields as diverse as baking, engineering, biotechnology, and train conducting. Students have the opportunity to dip into more than one profession, because the idea is less to train for a specific job than to see how adults use their own educations in the workplace each day. That helps students stay motivated to earn a degree, and introduces them to the behaviors and practices specific to the working world.

A few notes of caution. First, the school Obama referenced in his address is P-Tech here in Brooklyn — the Pathways in Technology Early College High School. Like a lot of celebrated educational arrangements in New York City (ex; the Harlem Children's Zone), P-Tech is special; it is a partnership between the New York City schools, IBM, and the City University system. To earn the combined high school diploma/associate's degree P-Tech offers, students must commit to a six-year course of study, which is time-consuming and expensive, requiring extra resources that most school districts simply don't have, especially absent the deep-pocketed corporate partners present in a city like New York. Obama's promise of more funding is desperately needed if we want to recreate schools like this one. But since the Republican Congress has demonstrated a specific interest in cutting job-training programs, I'd like to hear more about exactly where the president believes this new money will come from. (Same goes for his pipe dream of universal pre-K, by the way.)

There are certainly discomfiting curricular trade-offs at many vocationally-oriented schools, and we shouldn't overlook them. P-Tech doesn't offer foreign languages or Advanced Placement courses, for example. So I found it interesting that Obama praised the German secondary school system in his address, saying, "Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job." German "dual track" vocational education has been hotly debated among American school reformers for over a century. Why? Because this system is radically different from our own. It separates students after the 10th grade and places them on a vocational, academic, or mixed vocational/academic track. The result is that in Germany today, only about one-third of all upper secondary school students are enrolled in a course of study that leads directly to a liberal arts university. That reality deeply challenges American notions of "college readiness" for all, a major priority of the new Common Core – shared national curriculum standards that the Obama administration also supports.

The truth, of course, is that despite our romanticization of college, only about one-third of Americans under 30 have earned a bachelor's degree. Where we actually do differ from Germany is what happens to the other two-thirds of young adults. In Germany, they typically hold an occupational certification by the age of 20, while in the United States, non-college grads are often left without marketable skills or qualifications.

More on vocational education in the US and Europe:

“Unquestioning Loyalty”

Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 12.35.52 PM
Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 12.35.36 PMThis is the text of a loyalty oath New York City public school teachers were expected to take in 1917 and 1918. Over the next three decades, teachers across the country were periodically subjected to these sorts of jingoistic fevers. For Quakers and antiwar activists, a particular problem with the pledge was the vow of unquestioning obedience to American military policy, as well as the promise to inculcate such obedience in one's students:

"We, the teachers of the public schools of the City of New York, do solemnly pledge our unqualified loyalty to the President and Congress of the United States in this war with the imperial governments of Germany and Austria. 

 "We pledge ourselves actively to inculcate in our pupils by word and deed love of flag and unquestioning loyalty to the military policy of the government and to the measures and principles proclaimed by the President and Congress.

"We declare ourselves to be in sympathy with the purposes of the government and its efforts to make the world safe for democracy, and believe that our highest duty at this moment is to uphold the hands of the President and Congress in this crisis. 

"We believe that any teachers whose views prevent them from subscribing to such sentiments should not be permitted to teach the youth of our city.”

 Related: Texas state senators object to a curriculum that supposedly sympathizes with socialists, critiques founding fathers.

A Little Glimpse at My Book Research: Red Scare Attacks on Teachers

If there were endless hours in the day, I'd blog about the news much more regularly. But since my book project is pretty much all-consuming at this point, I'm not posting here as much as I'd like. I do want to let you know that over at my Tumblr, Popular History, I'm posting occasional tidbits I find as I research the political and social history of American public schools and teachers, including some fascinating newspaper and magazine reports, photos, and drawings.

Here's today's offering, which displays the paranoid rhetoric surrounding leftist educators during the WWI, WWII and Cold War Years. Though just a few hundred of New York City's 80,000 teachers at mid-century were social activists, those who lost their jobs during periodic red scare witch hunts were some of the district's most inspiring and dedicated teachers, including early advocates for school integration and a black history curriculum. Chapter five of the book will tell their stories. 

Michelle Rhee, Back in the News in a Big Way

I'm looking forward to this evening's episode of FRONTLINE, which will explore evidence of adult tampering with children's tests in certain Washington, DC public schools during the chancellorship of Michelle Rhee, who is perhaps the nation's most controversial school reformer. The allegations are not new. They were first revealed nearly two years ago by my colleague Greg Toppo and his crack reporting team at USA Today, which used a computer algorithim to comb through reams of data, and found a national pattern of manipulated standardized test scores in the wake of No Child Left Behind, which greatly increased test-score pressure on schools and districts. Tonight's documentary, however, reported by John Merrow, will delve more deeply into Rhee's efforts to evade a thorough investigation of statistically implausible test score gains. In a preview interview with the Education Writers' Association, Merrow judges Rhee harshly. "The record is pretty clear that D.C. schools are not better because she was there," he says. "They’re still at the bottom, with the lowest graduation rate in the country."

The FRONTLINE report is especially timely as it comes just a day after Rhee's national advocacy organization, Students First, released a "report card" grading states on how closely they align with Rhee's agenda of tying teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores; weakening teacher tenure; transitioning teachers from traditional pension to 401(k) plans; funding charter schools and private school vouchers; instituting mayoral and state control of schools; and expanding the charter school sector and holding it accountable for results. Doug Henwood notes that states with high grades on the report card, including Louisiana and Florida, have woefully poor student academic achievement, while Massachusetts, with the highest math and reading scores in the nation, earned a D+ from Students First. This is true, but as Matt Yglesias writes, most of Rhee's favored policies are too new to be conclusively judged; the proof will be in the pudding a decade from now, when we can track what effect, if any, school choice and test-score based accountability policies have had on gold-standard NAEP test scores over time. 

That said, Rhee's most influential effort, her push to tie teacher pay and job security to individual students' standardized test scores, is the one element of this agenda for which we already have some powerful, and disturbing evidence, thanks to the investigations of USA Today and FRONTLINE. As I've reported, psychometricians, the scientists who study testing, have been warning for decades that when policy-makers attach ever-higher stakes to tests–first accountability measures targeting schools and districts, and now job security threats for individual principals and teachers–the reliability of test scores is compromised, sometimes due to teaching-to-the-test, and sometimes due to outright cheating. This consistent finding has crucial implications for "value-added measurement," the method, promoted by economists, of using standaridzed test scores as the major proxy for teacher quality and student learning. If we are concerned, as Matt is, about so much economic modeling being backed by poor data, we must deal with the implications this has for education policy. In my 2012 year-in-review, I talk a bit more about what all this means for education research; I want to emphasize that raising concerns about value-added measurement does not mean one is reflexively "anti-testing," it simply means that one is questioning the wisdom of tying high stakes to tests.

Before I leave the subject of Michelle Rhee, it's worth noting that Students First has had a very difficult time coming up with a consistent position on the rights of teachers to collectively bargain, even just for pay.  (Most recently, it seems that they are against collective bargaining — for everyone.) Now, as Joy Resmovits reports at the Huffington Post, many of the well-connected Democrats who worked for Rhee have left her team, and are being replaced by former staffers from Americans Elect, a hedge fund-backed effort to elect third-party independents. 

I'm not questioning Rhee's personal commitment to certain progressive aims. I was impressed, for example, with her genuine efforts to better integrate public schools in rapidly-gentrifying DC neighborhoods, by working hard to convince college-educated parents to enroll their kids in local schools. But as her career advances nationally, she is more and more allying with Republican, even Tea Party-type conservative governors and state legislators. I'm midway through writing a book on the history of American education, and from this vantage point, I'm very skeptical about relying upon an anti-government political movement–one almost totally indifferent to social and economic inequality–to invest in and improve the schools poor children attend.

2012: The Year in Review, Education and Beyond

Education story of the yearThe Chicago teachers' strike. American teacher unionism was founded in Chicago in the late 1890s, as female, largely Catholic elementary school teachers resisted centralization policies–standardized testing, a uniform curriculum, numeric teacher evaluations–pursued by a male, Protestant bureaucracy. So it was fitting that the loudest cry of protest against contemporary standards-and-accountability school reform emerged in the Windy City this September, as teachers resisted professional evaluation tied to student test scores, closures of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of the charter school sector. You can read my history of Chicago teacher unionism here.

The strike has had a few interesting results. First, it raised the profile of Chicago Teachers' Union leader Karen Lewis, who is a less compromising and more leftist figure than Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers. Second, it brought to the public's attention the tension bewteen increasing test-score pressure on teachers and schools while cutting budgetary support for art, music, counseling, school psychologists, and the many other crucial, yet more holistic services schools provide. Third, it resulted in a compromise contract with both progressive and regressive features. More funding for social support services, especially in high-poverty schools, is a good thing. Continuing to backload teacher salaries and bonsues, though, will not make the profession more appealing to ambitious young people or career-changers. Yet it is encouraging that CTU agreed, at least in theory, to professional evaluations that include evidence of student learning. Now the devil will be in working out the details, particularly on what role standardized test scores will play, and how to evaluate teachers of currently non-tested subjects and grades, like art, music, PE, and kindergarten.

 

Magazines of the Year: Tomorrow and Jacobin.
 

Education research-finding of the year: Teachers matter, and not just for academics. A study by economists Raj Chetty, Jonah Rockoff, and John Friedman found that teachers who consistently improve their students' standardized test scores also help children avoid teenage pregnancy, get to college, and earn higher incomes. But there is a crucial caveat to this finding: The study was conducted in a low-stakes settingin other words, among teachers whose pay and evaluation were not tied to test scores. The researchers admitted in their paper that when tests do become high-stakes, there is an increased risk of score manipulation, which can occur either through teaching-to-the-test or outright cheating. In high-stakes settings, test scores become less reliable and, therefore, their link to better life outcomes for kids could be compromised.

 

Under-reported education trend of the year (and decade): Sociology used to be the academic discipline with the most influence over public education policy. Today that discipline is economics. On the upside, we now have more data about children's academic and life outcomes. On the downside, education policy-makers are paying less attention to aspects of children's lives that are more difficult or impossible to quantify, such as parental involvement and comfort with diversity.

 

New York restaurant of the year: Pok Pok. We only had the patience to wait in line for this place once, but it was so, so, so worth it. A close runner-up is Battersby, where I had two wonderful meals. Another year, another few reasons never to leave Brooklyn. 

 

Book of the year on How We Live NowTwilight of the Elites, by Chris HayesThis bracing book about "America after meritocracy" has implications for every area of policy-making, but is especially sharp at deconstructing myths we tell ourselves about education: that test scores measure aptitude and that elite schools serve the common good.

 

Education story to watch in 2013: The roll-out of the Common Core. Will the movement to implement shared national academic standards remain bipartisan, or will conservatives and Republicans increasingly turn against it? Will schools implement the Core faithfully, or will myths about the standards–like the false idea that they cut out fiction reading–persist?  

 

Albums of the year: "Break it Yourself," by Andrew Bird. "Sun," by Cat Power. "Channel Orange," by Frank Ocean. "The Idler Wheel…" by Fiona Apple. "Shields," by Grizzly Bear.

 

Education book of the year: My favorite was Saving the School, by Michael Brick.

 

A book to pounce on in 2013: The absolutely masterful Hope Against Hope, by Sarah Carr, the definitive account of education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans, told through the eyes of a student, a teacher, and a principal. A gripping narrative with deep historical and political ramifications. 

 

Cultural controversy of the year: The battle over the future of the New York Public Library's main branch, at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Should this world-class research institution ship several million books to New Jersey, and open space for a lending library? Should architect Norman Foster, known for his glass additions to historic buildings, be let loose on this Beaux Arts masterpiece? I work there almost every day, and I still can't decide how I feel about it. 

 

TV Show of the Year: "Girls." Feminists are funny. 

 

#longreads of the year: This past spring, the magazine that launched my career, The American Prospect, experienced a terrifying brush with death. I'm so glad donors and subscribers have helped The Prospect continue its work, because under editor Kit Rachlis, it has published some amazing writing. Monica Potts' "Pressing on the Upward Way" is a compassionate, beautifully-constructed portrait of rural poverty in Eastern Kentucky. Equally stirring was Gabriel Arana's "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life," which not only told Gabe's personal story of surviving "ex-gay therapy," but also broke news by revealing how the psychiatrist who pushed to define homosexuality as a mental illness, Robert Spitzer, has come to regret and retract his previous work.

Documentary of the Year: "Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry," by Alison Klayman.

Personal Highlight of the Year: Pacific Street. With this guy.
Happy New Year, folks. 

The Disability Treaty Debacle and the Republican Education Agenda

Every so often the paranoid rhetoric of the "parental rights" movement surfaces in the Congressional Republican caucus. That's what happened yesterday when 38 senators blocked the United States from adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a treaty largely based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. That celebrated piece of legislation was signed into law by George H.W. Bush in 1990. Both former Bush presidents, Bob Dole, and John McCain all back the treaty, which seeks to prevent discrimination on the basis of disability, and which would do nothing to change any exisiting U.S. law or to prevent homeschooling. Yet anti-internationalist conservative interest groups have organized strong opposition to this treaty and others among homeschooling parents and Tea Party activists, telling them it could prevent parents from educating disabled children at home or using corporal punishment. From the Senate floor, Utah's Mike Lee articulated this position: 

I and many of my constituents, including those who homeschool their children or send their children to private or religious schools, have justifiable doubts that a foreign UN body, a committee operating out of Geneva, Switzerland, should decide what is in the best interests of a child at home with his or her parents in Utah or in any other state in our Great union.

Back during the GOP primary I wrote an essay for The Nation about divisions in the Republican Party over school reform. The GOP education agenda is no longer set by No Child Left Behind moderates, who see school accountability and choice–backed by shared academic standards and enforced through standardized testing–as essentially conservative ideas. Instead, as President Obama and most Democrats have come to embrace that reform agenda, and have implemented it through programs like Race to the Top, the GOP has shifted far to the right, becoming increasingly responsive to activists who see any federal foray into education or children's issues more broadly as an invasion of the sacred parent-child relationship. 

This helps explain what happened in the Senate yesterday, and it explains what the Republican Party will have to resolve, internally, if it really intends to make education a core part of its emerging post-2012 agenda, as Buzzfeed's John Stanton and Zeke Miller are reporting. Sure: Private school vouchers and anti-teachers' union rhetoric can coexist quite comfortably with strong support for unregulated homeschooling. Both sets of ideas are predicated on a certain hostility toward traditional public schools; Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum would agree, for example, that more kids should be able to use their state and federal education funding to enroll in online, for-profit charter schools, which students "attend" from their home computers, and which are much cheaper to operate than brick-and-mortar schools.

But ultimately, authentic school improvement must take into consideration the curriculum and how it is tested or assessed, not just at charter or online schools, but at traditional public schools, as well, in which close to 90 percent of American children are enrolled. The religious right has a long history of opposing state and national efforts to raise academic standards and even to provide high school students with on-the-job vocational training (Michele Bachmann began her career grandstanding on such issues); moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels, however, remain comitted to the Common Core and to the basic idea that Washington has a role to play in supporting local schools and holding them accountable for results. 

The intra-Democratic Party debate between traditional teachers' union positions and standards-and-accountability reform was resolved over the course of the past 20 years mostly in favor of reform. The Republican Party may now go through a similar transition. Will the GOP choose centrist standardization and school improvement (which costs money), or conservative hostility toward any investment in public education? 

In Los Angeles, a Promising and Progressive School Reform Plan Is Under Threat

Crenshaw
Between periods at Crenshaw High School in South L.A., May 2011.

Let's say a certain school's reform plan has yielded measurable academic gains (especially for disabled students), a decrease in student suspensions and expulsions, and is enthusiastically supported by the principal, teachers, and many parents. The plan has also garnered national interest, attracting funding from a major philanthropy and the Obama administration, too. This school is by no means perfect; Latino students, in particular, need significant help. And the school in question has a history of outspoken activism, with parents and teachers partnering to demand better textbooks and technology, and some teachers closely-affiliated with their union and loudly opposed to popular reform strategies such as merit pay tied to student test scores. Should this school's reform plan be halted by a district administration with a different agenda, or allowed to continue its experimentation? 

This isn't a hypothetical case, but the real story of Crenshaw High in South Los Angeles, which I reported on earlier this year, and which now faces a district-imposed "reconstitution."

Crenshaw is a high-poverty, predominantly African American school that has followed a unique reform blueprint called the Extended Learning Cultural Model. Led by a group of visionary teachers–and financed by the Ford Foundation and a federal School Improvement Grant–the Crenshaw model split the school into several themed academies ("social justice;" "business") and reorganized the curriculum around neighborhood problem-solving. What does this mean in practice? Students worked with university researchers to examine local health and nutrition issues; graphed the relationhip between school truancy rates and incarceration rates; and interned at local non-profits. They read Our America, a book about life inside a troubled Chicago housing project, and openly discussed racism and classism. Interim principal Sylvia Rousseau worked closely with teachers to raise academic rigor across the curriculum and implement the new Common Core standards. But as I wrote in February:

What’s controversial about the Crenshaw reform agenda is that it is explicitly political. It asks students to think critically about the social forces shaping their lives and to work actively to improve their low-income neighborhood. Poor children often hear that they need to do well in school in order to escape their communities. What if, instead, kids understood that doing well in school could help them become more effective advocates for their families and neighbors?

The man who became L.A. schools superintendent in April 2011, John Deasy, has quite a different orientation toward education reform. He has been affiliated with the Gates and Broad foundations, which–while both very supportive of the Common Core–tend to focus more attention on tying teacher evaluation and pay to student performance than on ensuring the curriculum is "culturally-relevant" to poor children's lives. Gates and Broad are also heavily invested in charter schools, while Crenshaw is a traditional, large comprehensive high school–the kind many education reformers believe is outmoded and should be phased out. So in part, it is no surprise that on Oct. 24, Deasy notified Crenshaw that he intends to halt the school's existing reform agenda, divide Crenshaw into three magnet schools, and ask the current teaching and administrative staff to reapply to their jobs.

There are a lot of great things about magnet schools, so I'm eager to hear more about what Deasy and his team have planned for Crenshaw. Deasy also says he wants to see more Advanced Placement and potentially International Baccalaureate classes at the school, which could be excellent ideas, and potentially worked into Crenshaw's existing reform plan. But what's discouraging about this news is that the district seems determined to paint Crenshaw — in many ways an underdog success — as an abject failure. Under its Extended Learning Cultural Model, Crenshaw actually met or exceeded state academic growth targets for most of its students, and earned broad-based community and even national support. Its School Improvement Grant is administered at the state level and tied to Crenshaw's current reform plan, not the agenda Deasy hopes to implement, which raises questions about accountability for federal dollars.

Everyone in the field of public education has his or her favored reform methods, from merit pay to vocational education to year-round schooling to giving every kid violin lessons. But if district leaders don't allow other experts' ideas to come to fruition over the course of years, not months, new strategies can never be fully assessed, nor scaled-up if they work. Before its current reform plan was in place, Crenshaw had five principals in nine years. This school is desperately in need of some stability, and as I saw when I sat-in on professional development trainings last year, the current staff is deeply comitted to seeing its reform project through, and unusually self-reflective about the work they are doing. What's more, the explicitly activist, social justice lens through which these educators teach their students is increasingly rare in public schools in 2012. Yet a lot of smart people, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Lisa Delpit, have observed that disadvantaged students learn more when their curriculum reflects, at least in part, their own histories and struggles, and shows them how education can serve not only their own individual interests, but those of their communities, too.

The whole saga at Crenshaw reminds me of the sad story of another creative public high school that bucked the prevailing reform winds of the day: Feinstein High, in Providence, Rhode Island. Feinstein was founded as a Ted Sizer-inspired “Essential School” organized around the principles of civic engagement and volunteer work. Serving just 360 students, Feinstein was highly nontraditional: It stressed long-form writing, not test scores, and there were no sports teams, class periods, or even grades. Every student had every teacher’s cell phone number, as well as a laptop they could carry between home and school. Although test scores were uneven, Feinstein demonstrated consistently impressive graduation and college-going rates compared to other high-poverty high schools in Rhode Island. For awhile, the school was recognized as a rare success story within an otherwise failing district. In 1999, the Gates Foundation gifted Providence $13.5 million to experiment with creating more small neighborhood high schools, using Feinstein as one model.

Over time, however, Gates, disappointed with stagnant test scores and graduation rates at some Foundation-funded small schools, decided to change his focus. In 2005, he stopped funding non-charter small schools and began investing heavily in school choice and standards-and-accountability reforms, such as charter schools and data-driven teacher evaluation. As the largest private foundation in the world, the Gates Foundation’s priorities are powerfully influential over the entire non-profit sector, and certainly help shape federal and state education agendas, too — in part through the seeding of Foundation alumni, like Deasy, in important policy-making jobs. It didn’t take long for Feinstein to fall out of favor with Rhode Island’s political and philanthropic elite, and in 2010, despite emotional protests from students and teachers, the Providence school district shut Feinstein down.

Now the same thing could happen to another school with a nontraditional reform agenda, Crenshaw High. But there are as many ways to reform education as there are principals, teachers, students, and parents comitted to doing this very difficult work. The cause of school improvement would probably benefit from a political environment in which educators were more often allowed to break the mold of the most established and popular reform strategies, especially in cases where doing so has already yielded positive change for children.

To learn more about the fight at Crenshaw, check out Crenshaw Cougars Fighting Reconstitution. After the jump, I have posted Superintendent John Deasy's letter to the Crenshaw staff. 

Continue reading