The perils of the ‘F-word’

September 26, 2013
F-Letter-F

Here’s a great piece on school reform by Los Angeles educator Brock Cohen. He is in the second year of a doctoral program at the University of Southern California and he works at the nonprofit Los Angeles Education Partnership, which helps build organizational capacity in high-poverty schools. He was a teacher for a dozen years in Los Angeles public schools.

By Brock Cohen

I thought we were all more mature than this.

Two prominent governors have been firing off the F-word quite a bit lately in their mutual efforts to effect dramatic K-12 school reform in their respective states.

Louisiana Governor Boby Jindal used it to fulminate against the U.S. Department of Justice for its attempt to thwart the exodus of children from high-poverty public schools through the state’s voucher program.

Days later, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo blurted it out while blasting the state’s designated underperforming schools – and then all but reiterated his previous proposal to impose a “death penalty” on schools that cannot meet the accountability standards set by state and federal governments.

The F-word at issue here is, of course, “failing,” and it has become the go-to verbal dagger of the school-reform syndicate.

Seemingly cosmetic diatribes like Jindal’s and Cuomo’s are problematic, mainly because of what they do not explicitly say about their cruel shibboleth. In the meantime, we are left to assume a general definition of a “failing” school, but should we? What exactly is a “failing” school? In addition to hearing the term levied by hoards of reform-minded firebrands, I’ve also witnessed, firsthand, the ways in which the word’s implications cascade down from the mouths of demagogues and into actual policy instruments that impact the lives and learning of real students.

Most of my 12-plus years as a high school teacher have been spent in a Title I Los Angeles-area public high school that is perennially labeled with Program Improvement (P.I.) probationary status. Being branded as such means continually having to grapple with a host of federal, state, and local sanctions that, at best, cast pall of shame over the entire school and at worst cause direct harm to student learning outcomes. “Program Improvement,” incidentally, is bureaucratic vernacular for “failing,” which is ironic, since many of the California schools designated with this term have actually been meeting or exceeding their school-wide Academic Performance Index (API) goals for years. I know: I don’t get it either. So what gives?

Here’s a hint: the fundamental problem of “failing” schools isn’t lurking within the decaying brick and mortar of dilapidated school walls. It does, however, lurk within a dilapidated system that stubbornly refuses to transform itself into what it should – or could – be. This autocratic paradigm tries to paper over outdated or incoherent curricula, abysmally low organizational capacity and scripted “test-best” instructional mandates with a new generation of high-stakes tests and massive rollouts of iPads. It also includes the cynical but rosy rhetoric of school leaders and media pundits who call for teachers and principals to work their way through this manufactured crisis – to Teach Like a Champion! – as if balling one’s fists and punching a concrete wall harder, harder, HARDER! could ever serve as a template for reconstituting a building’s framework.

The problem also lurks within an ethos that continually fails to realize that our hallowed learning and achievement targets actually descend into an abysmal rabbit hole. Without delving too deeply into this abyss, let’s just say that data collection isn’t inherently a bad thing. But the performance indicators on which we’ve chosen to fixate have rendered the whole process pointless and fantastically detrimental to the cognitive growth of a generation of students. That leaders and practitioners have been somehow coerced into believing that learning indicators are something that can be reflected in the crudeness of high-stakes standardized test scores reveals the extent to which intellectual atrophy has devolved into an institutionalized norm.

With this said, the most definitive characteristic of so-called successful American schools is also the least likely to be acknowledged. Successful schools are born of privileged social status, which is largely (though not exclusively) carved out by racial lines. Successful schools are endowed with the prodigious social capital that ensures students will be connected to peers and families who know how to finesse bureaucratic minefields. In this way, students who attend more affluent schools are the beneficiaries of access. They have greater access to a college-going culture, to aspirational peers, to less scripted (and therefore more rigorous) curricula, and to a school supported – financially and politically – by networks of connected parents who are aren’t reticent about leveraging influence to ensure their children’s success.

Consequently, successful schools most often exist where large populations of poor kids aren’t. Successful schools are affluent schools, and they get to play by different rules.

Consider that affluent schools are rarely threatened with mass firings, takeovers, or closures. Their educators are not dangled over the cliff until they comply with the latest one-size-fits-all curriculum regime. And they are not in a perpetual scramble to bolster the high-stakes test scores of sometimes five or more disadvantaged subgroups of children, whose output often determines the school’s existence. This is because affluent schools fly higher than the rest: they have higher test scores, graduation rates, and average daily attendance. No matter that many of the skills and behaviors needed for these indicators to soar are already flourishing long before wealthier children appear on these campuses.

But let’s be clear: school reformers won’t dare bring up the pre-K socioeconomic proficiency gaps that remain steady throughout a child’s entire schooling. Saying as much would force them to actually do something about 400-hour “literacy activity” deficits prior to kindergarten, or the gaping White-Latino preschool enrollment divide. It would also be a tacit acknowledgment that schools themselves are not the culprits for producing the much maligned achievement gap between rich and poor.

Ultimately, “failing” public schools are a manifestation of the social and economic divisions that cleave high-poverty communities from wealthier ones. The most disheartening aspect of this is that so many students are trapped between two worlds. On the one hand, they intuitively know that being an educated person means having greater awareness of the world around them and greater access to possibilities that can lead to more stable, fulfilling lives. But too often their life contexts constantly beckon them away from it.

I’ve had scores of students over the years who’ve begged their parents (often unsuccessfully) to let them attend four-year universities, who end up caving to the pressures of friends constantly cajoling them to ignore their schoolwork, who are expected to act as domestic caregivers, and who have had boyfriends or girlfriends disparage their efforts to become successful learners. I’ll speculate that these things happen with far less frequency in “successful” schools.

It’s become too easy for experts in sophistry to cast schools with low achievement indexes as irredeemable failures. Lest we interpret their rhetoric as draconian, they’re usually quick to add that these schools have had more than enough time to clean up their act – as though domestic turmoil, malnutrition, 32-million word gaps, and missing out on preschool are all conditions that can be erased by replacing existing ranks of underachievers with more diligent cadres of teachers and administrators. In Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Education researchers Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan write:

Big structural changes don’t address the people who experience them. Getting rid of all the wrong people – principals, teachers, and students – and replacing them with the right people just turns reform into what Doug Reeves calls the “neutron bomb strategy of educational change.

But by ignoring the array of variables that impinge upon the learning growth of high-needs students, we cede the public education reform narrative to non-educators.

Without pushback from concerned citizens, who are willing to fight for public schools to become sanctuaries of learning and wellness rather than a mirror of the social dysfunction produced by systemic inequity, high-profile opportunists will continue to own the debate. In the meantime, they’ll continue to wield their version of the F-word as a cudgel to beat down the one thing that could actually eradicate the widespread social injustices they’re ostensibly railing against.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · September 25, 2013