School Choice & Charters Opinion

The New Conventional Wisdom?

By Diane Ravitch — September 16, 2008 5 min read
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Dear Deborah,

You raise important questions about the role of trust and community in schooling. Those issues should be front and center as part of the discussion of the future of public education. We should discuss further whether trust and community are advanced by preserving and strengthening neighborhood schools or by encouraging the growth of choice schools, by charters and vouchers. Certainly, a case can be made for both routes.

The neighborhood school has always been an important center of community. It brings together people from disparate walks of life who are neighbors and gives them a place in which to work together and debate their common concerns as a community. In some cities, the neighborhood school is the only effective community organization. For many people, it is their introduction to the give-and-take of democratic civic life.

Some of the same arguments have been made on behalf of choice schools; after all, if all the families are in a school that they have chosen, then they, too, are a community and they are there because of their active choice, rather than an accident of geography.

Maybe I shouldn’t, but I worry about the kids who are left behind, and also about the implications of the business model imposed on schools.

I just finished reading two books that shed some light on these questions. One is Anthony S. Bryk and Barbara Schneider’s “Trust in Schools.” Bryk and Schneider document how important it is for teachers, principals, parents, students, and administrators to trust one another. Because each person or group is in some way dependent on the actions of the others, trust is a necessary component of school improvement. They do not account for the possibility of a political structure in which almost all power is concentrated in the hands of the mayor or his chancellor. They could not even imagine a school district in which the political leader unilaterally declares that 5-year-olds must take standardized tests, regardless of the views of parents, teachers, or administrators. The lesson to be taken away from this important book, it seems clear to me, is that schools function best when there is a high degree of trust among all those involved in the educational process.

The other book, which I finished just last night, is Paul Tough’s “Whatever It Takes.” Tough is an accomplished journalist who writes for The New York Times Magazine; you may have seen his articles, one last year about successful charter schools like KIPP and Achievement First, the most recent about school reforms in New Orleans.

Tough’s new book is about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. The book takes on added significance because Barack Obama has said that he wants to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in 20 cities. As Tough describes it, Canada has attempted to create an all-encompassing, interlinked set of programs that will deeply affect the lives of many people in Harlem and break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage. His programs include a “Baby College,” where pregnant women (and their partners) learn important skills and information about prenatal care and baby care. Then there is a program for infants and a prekindergarten program, an elementary charter school, and a variety of programs for teens and adults. Much of the book focuses on the travails of the middle school, where educators struggled to raise test scores, in many cases unsuccessfully. The lesson that Canada drew from the poor results of the middle school was that he had to start with kids before they fell so far behind; in some cases, 6th grade students were reading at a 2nd grade level and that was a challenge that he and his school were unable to master.

Tough’s book is very hopeful. He cites a large body of evidence to argue that children will never fall behind cognitively if their parents and their environment provide them with enough stimulation and support from the beginning of their lives. This is the case, he says, no matter how poor their parents are, no matter how disadvantaged their circumstances. If we as a society do “whatever it takes,” we can close the achievement gaps and get every student ready for college or a good career.

However, and there is always a however, there is a depressing aspect to Tough’s book. As the author describes the situation, Canada is in complete sympathy with his powerful, wealthy board of directors, which includes hedge-fund billionaires. Not surprising. These directors care only for the numbers, and they don’t care how the schools get them. “The overall goal of the Zone might be liberal and idealistic—to educate and otherwise improve the lives of poor black children—but Canada believed the best way to achieve that goal was to act not like a bighearted altruist but like a ruthless capitalist, devoted to the bottom line.” (p.135).

The first principal of the middle school sounds like you, Deborah; she must have been reading your books. She is a progressive educator who worries about the whole child, about their social and emotional problems, and who wants the children to have a rounded education. But her school doesn’t get the test scores gains that the hedge-fund managers and the New York City Department of Education demand. She is removed and replaced by a KIPP-style principal. The wealthy men who run the board of the Zone are impressed by the KIPP model, which is described by one of them as “more of a military-style, real rote-learning, rote-behavior discipline thing,” because this model “delivered results.”

The new principal begins a regimen of test-prep, test-prep, test-prep, no-nonsense discipline. Drill, drill, drill. I won’t spoil the book for you by giving away the outcome, but I can only say that the school part of the book’s message was startling. Do poor black and Hispanic kids really need to be in “no excuses” schools that insist on rote learning and rote behavior? That take control of their lives and change their culture? Should this be the model for education for children of color in big cities? This was the message of Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom’s book “No Excuses,” and it was echoed by a recent book by David Whitman, “Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism.”

I think this is becoming the new conventional wisdom. What do you think?


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