Equity & Diversity Opinion

Can School Reform Save Baltimore?

By Dave Powell — April 30, 2015 5 min read
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Like a lot of people, I’ve been watching what’s happening in Baltimore in the last several days with a wary, and weary, eye. I live just about an hour from downtown Baltimore but, as the cliche would have it, I might as well be worlds away. As I sit here typing I can look up at the bucolic Pennsylvania countryside behind my house and see a semi-open field, now preserved as national park land, where some of the fiercest fighting of the battle of Gettysburg happened in 1863. In many ways I couldn’t be further from what’s going on down there.

And let me be clear about what I mean: I’m not just talking about the riots that occurred over the last several days following the death of Freddie Gray. I’m glad to not be near that, and fortunate to not have to ever contemplate what it would be like for my neighborhood to descend into chaos. What bothers me more is the legacy of America’s abandonment of its cities and, especially, of the people who live in them. Schools and education policy are intimately connected to this: when efforts were made to integrate schools and other public spaces in the 1950s and ‘60s, those efforts were met with massive resistance—not only in the south, as we all know, but also in northern cities like York, Pennsylvania, and Boston. In so many places peaceful protests were met with violence, yet we still blame protesters for being angry in the face of police brutality, after fifty years or more of putting up with it. Our social hope was that school integration would right the wrongs of the past by educating them into oblivion. It’s astonishing to think that could have underestimated how difficult it would be to do that.

David Simon, who is known for producing the HBO series The Wire, and who spent several years writing for the Baltimore Sun, was recently interviewed by Bill Keller at the Marshall Project. He had this to say about the recent events in his hometown:

I guess there's an awful lot to understand and I'm not sure I understand all of it. The part that seems systemic and connected is that the drug war—which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city—was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department. Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war.

Simon’s point is simply this: the so-called war on drugs has decimated any sense of community in many parts of the city, and it has licensed police officers to put people in jail—to “humble” them, in their terms—for the smallest infractions. Simon says prior to the 1980s humbles were handed out especially to people who didn’t understand “the code,” the things that could and could not be said to a cop. But in the 1980s, that changed: the police essentially abandoned the code and were given license to do what they pleased in neighborhoods that were considered drug territory. Now, according to Simon, “There’s no code at all, it’s just, what side of the bed did I get up on this morning and who looked at me first?” And that, he says, “is a function of people failing to learn how to police.”

If anything, Simon undersells the deeply rooted legacies of segregation in Baltimore; Jamelle Bouie at Slate provides additional context here. I don’t know anything about police work except that I’ve never, ever wanted to do it, and I’m glad other people do. I also know that the picture Simon paints of police not being taught how to police effectively, and having bad habits and behaviors incentivized by a callous and self-interested political class, is chilling. In some ways, he might as well have been talking about teachers. Like the police, teachers are the ground-level enforcers of a lot of bad ideas. We shouldn’t be surprised if people learn, over time, to put self-preservation ahead of good practice under such circumstances. We also shouldn’t be surprised when people stop seeing the policies they enforce as wrong since most people do what they’ve been taught to do. Creating lasting change is slow, unsteady, and grueling work. We have to undo a lot of what has already been done to make it happen, and that requires commitment few people are willing to make—especially in the face of political and cultural systems that value quick fixes over enduring change. If we decide we want to make that commitment, we have a lot of work to do.

Given this context, it’s worth asking the question: could school reform conceivably save Baltimore and other cities like it? Can we educate the problems of segregation, racism, police brutality, and economic collapse out of existence? I work with students every day, many of them from very comfortable homes, who are desperate to do something to effect social change in neighborhoods like the ones affected in Baltimore. Their feelings are sincere. They want to believe that education reform can deliver kids in urban neighborhoods from lives of poverty and degradation, and that they can be part of that. I want to believe it too. This is the promise made by Teach for America, by the New York City Teaching Fellows, and by The New Teacher Project, to name a few. But can they deliver?

Consider me a skeptic. To be sure, some of these students do go on to work in the toughest neighborhoods America can serve up, and many of them do amazing work there, stories about eating bees notwithstanding. But I expect them all, at one time or another, to burn out, and even if they don’t the terms of their commitment often result in “recruits” or “corps members” or “fellows” leaving their classrooms before they have ever really had the chance to start making a lasting impression. In the face of poverty, caught in political crossfire, teachers can only do so much. Teachers working in impoverished areas—rural as well as urban, and suburban too—need more support than they have been given in order to make the commitments we need them to make. Tweaking the structure of schooling, or even “disrupting” it, to use language reformers tend to favor, is not going to be enough. Schools didn’t get us into this mess, and they won’t get us out either.

In short, I don’t believe school reform will save Baltimore, or any other American city. Not in its current iteration, anyway. Schools have to play a part in eliminating poverty but they can’t do it alone, and while “no excuses” rhetoric might be comforting to people who think this is simply a problem teachers haven’t worked hard enough to solve the reality is that, in many places, teachers are the ones working hardest to right the wrongs our whole society has created. Until there’s sustained public commitment to addressing the problems of poverty—until we commit to delivering real economic opportunity to impoverished cities and neighborhoods—too many teaching careers will end in frustration and disillusionment, and the prospects of too many students will disappear with them. Instead of pursuing structural reform so aggressively and focusing on ideological agendas first—are charter schools better than traditional public schools?; are alternative certification programs better than traditional ones?—we would do well to work together to look for solutions to the problems of poverty and inequality and then turn our attention to structural reform. We’re certainly not going to test these problems away either.

We need to demand a more equitable distribution of our economic resources, and we need to insist that communities laid bare by decades of economic devastation get the attention they need and deserve. Let’s do ourselves a favor and get started on that immediately.

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