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Published in Print: February 28, 2001, as Standardization's Stifling Impact

Standardization's Stifling Impact

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District 2's drive to standardize instruction is suffocating critical voices that should be heard.

An article I wrote criticizing the burgeoning charter school movement appears this month in a high-profile research journal. But when parents in my daughter's school, Public School 3 in Manhattan, ask me about whether our school should "go charter," I can't respond. I can't see how parents and teachers can make the board of education respect the school's commitment to progressive education.

The paradox is that PS 3 is located in Community School District 2 in New York City, the urban school district touted by liberals in the educational establishment as the "model" urban school district, the district that has proven that urban school systems can be turned around. A half-dozen policy analysts and a teachers' union president have told me so. Many parents and classroom teachers in District 2 see things differently, especially those in PS 3. Created as an alternative school by activist parents in Greenwich Village in the early 1970s, PS 3 might have become a relic of the '60s, but it survived, probably because it was simultaneously an alternative and a neighborhood school. As the Village became more openly gay, so did PS 3, becoming a home to gay and lesbian parents and teachers looking for an environment in which they and their children would be welcomed as full human beings. To maintain the school's social diversity in what is now an affluent neighborhood, parent volunteers recruit families who live outside the Village and agree with the school ideals associated with progressive education: arts-based learning; valuing children's differences; attention to children's social, political, and moral growth; and democratic governance. Within District 2, our school is known as the "parent-involvement school," because PS 3 parents sit with education professionals to make decisions about all aspects of school life. We believe that parents have knowledge of children's lives and personalities outside the school walls that is essential in making decisions about their learning.

Like almost all parents and teachers in urban school districts, we face constant struggles over mandates and regulations that create serious problems and minor headaches. One week recently, for instance, kids and teachers tried in vain to open classroom windows on Monday morning, only to learn they had been nailed closed over the weekend—despite the presence of window guards in our school—because of an edict from the central board stemming from a student's injury in a Brooklyn school.

Recently, a far more serious threat to the school's continued existence has arisen, one that we seem powerless to negotiate. Our district has developed a "standards-based instructional delivery system" that we and all other schools are forced to accept. Paying high-profile experts as consultants, District 2 has created a finely detailed package of "constructivist" materials and instructional strategies. Though PS 3 parents by and large favor ideas associated with "constructivist" learning, they are suspicious of packages that presume any single method or approach could be best for every child and teacher in our school. As a school, we try to be as flexible as possible in having parents, children, and teachers decide together what's best for each child.

When the superintendent fired our new principal (the third in four years) in the sixth week of school, despite the expressed collective wishes of parents and teachers, we realized that we no longer have a choice about whether to accept the package District 2 delivers. We watch, powerless, as staff developers trained and paid by the district office report back to supervisors if teachers don't follow mandates about instruction.

The degree of micromanagement is astounding. Take, for instance, two of the mandates for literacy instruction: "Every classroom must have a word wall," and "Literacy should only be taught in the morning."

Teachers and administrators who even question the package's contents risk "unsatisfactory" ratings—or being summarily fired, as was our principal, who was dismissed for her inadequacy as an "instructional leader." (Ironically, the fired principal is finishing her doctorate in curriculum and instruction at Teachers College, Columbia University, and heads a project to mentor new urban teachers that was just funded to the tune of $1 million by a prestigious foundation.)

District 2's focus on creating a "standards-based instructional delivery system" is succeeding in raising test scores and achievement in some schools. At the same time, its drive to standardize instruction is suffocating critical voices that should be heard.

Opposition from parents is building against the new math curriculum, for example. The district is using federal grant money in its implementation that presumes these materials must be tested, yet nothing is experimental in the way the District 2 has mandated their use. There are no "controls." Indeed, teachers are prohibited from ordering other books or materials; the math package must be used exclusively in all classrooms. Furtively responding to this stricture, some teachers, with parent approval, have taken to photocopying pages of now-banned workbooks.

Both in public and privately, I have articulated my opposition to charter schools. I think they are the death knell for public education because they siphon off human and financial resources and isolate communities at a time when the need for cohesion among public education's supporters is critical.

District 2 may soon be known for a different kind of urban school change: the exodus of parents who support public schools but also believe in progressive education.

But in face of the onslaught we are experiencing from well-intentioned liberal reformers, I have no alternative strategy to offer parents who worry that PS 3 is being taken from us.

The argument I used to make, that "going charter" is bad for the school system, the city, and the nation, and therefore, in the long run, our children, rings very hollow these days. PS 3 parents who want to support public schools but believe in progressive education are now in precisely the same position as low-income minority parents whose neighborhood schools seem beyond reform.

Like parent activists in poor neighborhoods in New York City, PS 3 parents are committed and intelligent. In addition, the school's primarily well- educated parent population brings considerable cultural, political, and social capital to "going charter." Forming a charter school would not take much more effort than is now being expended to hold District 2 at bay.

If PS 3 parents "go charter," they will probably spark a similar effort among other middle-class parents in the district, for instance, disgruntled parents in the school system's wealthiest and best-performing school, who now pay for private math tutors to supplement the mandated curriculum.

If that occurs, District 2 may soon be known for a different kind of change in urban schools: the exodus of parents who support public schools but also believe in progressive education. They will "go charter" to make sure that their ideas about what kind of school they want are respected.

Frankly, I no longer know how to dissuade them—or if I should. At least in District 2. Maybe it's a different story in Brooklyn.

Vol. 20, Issue 24, Pages 29,33

Related Stories
Web Resources
  • "One City School That Turned It All Around,", Jan. 22, 2001. Reporter Liz Willen examines a District 2 school that landed on the dreaded SURR (Schools Under Registration Review) list. "A stunned District 2 Superintendent Anthony Alvarado, who now heads the San Diego school system, was determined to fix it." And he kept his word, according to Ms. Willen.
  • On another topic: "Guest Essay: Maybe You Wouldn't Want Me To Teach Your Child," Spring 1998, by Lois Weiner for FairTest. Ms. Weiner discusses her experience failing the essay portion of New York's Teacher Certification Exam. A prolific author, she suggests that the test just might be flawed.
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