“There ain’t no right way to do wrong.”
Note: This is the first part of a two-part post. The second part is here.
While watching and listening to the November 8th meeting of the DPS school board, I jotted a little note, accompanied by a sketch.
By this point, a group of women were sharing their concerns about the possible effects of transportation cuts on students who attend Gifted and Talented programs at distant magnet schools. One was mentioning how without that access, these students would “stagnate” in a traditional classroom, or in their neighborhood schools.
I paused to think about Race to Nowhere and reflect on the implications of the anxiety-inducing, high-pressure, achieve-at-all-costs mindset gripping so many American schools and communities. I then came back to where I was, in what was at times a very intense school board meeting, largely focused on the fate of children in historically low-performing schools.
Prior to those women, we heard many different views on how to address Denver’s achievement problems. We heard from advocates for KIPP’s expansion into the Far Northeast, who praised the uber-driven culture and extra hours that boost KIPPsters’ performance on standardized tests. We heard from the principal and some prospective parents at University Prep, where they believe that “College starts in Kindergarten.” (Apparently, we’ve decided that the path to equality in America is to make every student as stressed out as possible.) We also heard strong voices of opposition to the District’s plans, and saw alternative plans to transform certain schools (including one I helped present). As the Post remarked the next morning, the crowd was mixed, but it generally tilted in favor of those of us who agree that the DPS plan for the Far Northeast–and the process by which it was developed– is deeply flawed.
Things move quickly in the world of politics and school reform, and I absolutely understand–and feel– the sense of urgency that surrounds these issues. But while we continue to fight these very important battles over how to improve student outcomes, and who will have a say in determining our path towards that goal, I worry that as a society, we’re racing right past a much bigger issue.
Homeschoolers and democratic free schoolers notwithstanding, on the whole, we’re still dealing with a system that is designed to sort people into their “proper” roles in an unjust society. (Some people will phrase that as “roles in an Industrial Age economy.” Ok…as long as you remember which kinds of people were supposed to work the line, and which kinds were supposed to be management. Now that we’ve switched from the rhetoric of economic efficiency to the rhetoric of equal opportunity when we describe the same system, do you notice any striking parallels regarding whose schools are now “failing” and whose schools aren’t?)
We’re tweaking, instead of dismantling, an educational model that inevitably generates failure, by insisting that all children fit into a narrow conception of academic success and a similarly narrow (and ever-shrinking) timetable in which to achieve it. We use flawed metrics to rank and compare children and schools to one another, and then apply ever more pressure to improve the “losers”, as though it’s possible to make everyone a winner in a zero-sum game.
And while I and others regularly discuss this as the fundamental problem, it seems that virtually no one is willing to get off the reform treadmill long enough to think through the ramifications of that, and what it will take to turn things around for good. (Indeed, taking time to think about anything before proceeding is enough to get the Reformies to start crying “appeasement” and accuse you of not caring about children. Best to repeat the same Data over and over, and use it to justify whatever splashy change you like. Hey, even a terrible plan is better than *gasp!* doing nothing, right? ‘Cause those are clearly our only choices, right?)
It’s difficult, and certainly unpopular, but at some point we’re going to have to stop and confront the fact that this can’t continue. As one Montbello resident said to the school board, “there ain’t no right way to do wrong.” The system (especially as enshrined by NCLB and RTTT) is fundamentally wrong; no amount of intervention, or turnaround strategies, or firing teachers, or whatever is going to change that.
Read the signs: While the University Prep types are focusing on college in kindergarten, wealthier parents are setting their kids up for even more “elite” programs using test-prep coaches starting at age three. Others are holding their kids back a year before kindergarten, so that they can have an advantage over their peers*. We talk a lot about early intervention and other strategies to close the achievement gap, but the kids currently winning this race are still accelerating. In our attempts to keep up with each other and the rest of the world, we’re teaching certain elements of the curriculum earlier and earlier in children’s lives, and we’re running out of places to move them. Unless we plan on developing some kind of overly-academic preschool for fetuses still in utero, we’re going to have to figure out how to do things differently. Our need to do this becomes ever more urgent now that we are beginning to see that, as the first generation of over-tested, over-coached kids grows into adulthood, even the kids who won this race to nowhere are struggling to develop crucial cognitive, social, and emotional skills they’ll need for healthy and productive lives.
*ETA: Language check: I don’t mean to suggest here that all parents are trying to give their kids an unfair advantage over others by keeping them back a year. I believe that it’s a shame that kindergarten has become so difficult, and developmentally inappropriate, that holding them back a year or so is becoming the thing to do in order to prevent them from “failing.” To me, this is more a reflection on the sorry state of the school systems into which kindergartens feed, than it is of the parents who make the tough choice to hold their children back. Thanks, Caroline, for keeping me on my toes, language-wise!